We’ve all heard it: The dreaded question that many people hate to answer.
“So, what do you do for a living?”
Sometimes that’s a tough question to reply to, especially for people in technology, who work with advanced concepts that don’t boil down to easy descriptions. After all, technical terms and industry jargon don’t always lend themselves to casual conversation.
But the truth remains: however difficult it may be to talk about what you do, having an answer to that dreaded question is absolutely essential. “If someone comes up to you and asks what you do and you don’t have a very good answer for them, it shows you don’t have a lot of confidence about what you to,” says Anthony Fasano, a former civil engineer who has turned his skills toward coaching other high-tech employees.
Just as importantly, not being able to answer what it is that you do can actually hurt your career. “If you can’t describe what you do, no one is your customer,” says business coach Maggy Sterner.
That’s where the “elevator speech” comes in. The elevator speech, as you’ve probably heard, is a quick description of yourself that you can give whenever you meet someone new during the course of your work, at a networking event, during a job interview, or at any type of social event.
It’s not an easy thing to develop. Like a conversation during an actual elevator ride, an elevator speech needs to be short—at most, a minute long. Some experts even advocate boiling it down to 30 or even 15 seconds.
Why so short? That’s because people blank out quickly, sometimes in the first few words if they don’t immediately grab the importance and value of the words you’re using to describe yourself. “People instantly tune out,” says Fasano.
So how do you get to that one-minute, or 15-second, elevator speech? Well, it takes some thought, as well as some practice.
Step One: Crafting
Fasano says it’s best to start not with your job description, which can be too technical. Instead, start with why you do what you do and how you excel at it. “I try to focus on giving value in the elevator speech,” he says. “Make it clear how you give value in your job, because someone might not be interested in all of the technical things you do, per se.”
Breaking out that value can take some thought. Savannah Peterson, founder of Savvy Millennial, says she uses three questions—similar to the old fill-in-the-blanks Mad Libs games—to help boil it down. She calls it Sav-Lib:
- The thing(s) that are most unique about you are _________?
- The need you/your company solve is _________?
- People should hire you because ______?
Peterson actually goes further than the 60-30-15 second format: she suggests that a really good elevator speech should be tweetable. Sure, 140 characters is pretty extreme, but at the very least, she says, a great elevator speech is repeatable or sharable, just like anything else in social networking.
That sharing element ties into another approach Fasano uses to help people craft their elevator speeches. He asks how peoples’ colleagues or clients would describe them. Taking a look at the question from their eyes, he says, can reveal new truths about yourself that help you craft your speech.
Step Two: Practice (and Revision)
Once you have your elevator speech—or at least think that you do—it’s time to put it to work. No, that probably doesn’t mean you’re ready to wade into a crowd of strangers quite yet. Now it’s time to sit down with a friend or colleague and practice.
One of the most valuable exercises I have seen for this was at an event organized by COMPASS, an organization dedicated to helping scientists learn to communicate with and engage the public. During the exercise, 20 people lined up for what could be described as elevator speech speed dating. Over the course of about an hour we had a series of one-minute opportunities—with a timer looming above us, ticking down—to go through our elevator speeches, listen to our partners’ speeches, and both give and receive feedback. Every few minutes the line would shift so we’d have a new face in front of us, allowing us to adapt and practice what we’d just learned with the next person. By the end of an hour, most of the participants felt that we had truly crystalized our elevator speeches and seen the flaws and gaps in our previous approaches.
You don’t have to do through anything that intense, of course, but practice with a friend, colleague, mentor or coach can only help. This not only helps you get used to your own message, it allows you to see and respond to visual cues from your audience so you can learn to adapt if you see someone start to drift off while you speak.
It also helps to practice with different people from different careers and walks of life, so you have the opportunity to see how you might need to tailor your elevator speech depending on the people you might speak with in the future. After all, not every person you speak with it going to have the same responses or needs going into a conversation.
Once you’ve practiced with someone else, practice on your own. Repeat your elevator speech—or speeches, if you’ve prepared a few of different lengths—whenever you’re in front of a mirror, or while you’re driving, or anywhere else where you have a few moments of privacy. Practice makes perfect, but most importantly it also makes you more comfortable.
Just don’t over-practice. An overly prepared, overly rehearsed elevator speech can seem stiff and pre-written, which could turn someone off. “Keep it conversational,” Fasano advises.
Step Three: Go Beyond
The most important thing to realize with all of this work is that the elevator speech is not the be-all and end-all of your introduction. “It’s a preview,” Fasano says. “It’s not a self-contained thing. It’s the beginning of a conversation.”
The goal of any elevator speech, you see, is not to get someone to instantly understand what you do but to get them to want to keep talking to you. That could mean going into more specifics about the details you just laid out in your 30-second intro. “For example,” Fasano says, “if you say, ‘I help people finish their projects under budget,’ be prepared to say by how much.” Have examples ready so you can be specific if someone asks for more detail.
All of this elevator speech crafting is hard work, but it’s important for your self-confidence and your career. “There are a lot of engineers out there,” Fasano says. “What makes you a little bit different or better than other people?” If you can’t answer that question, no one else can, either.