The term “elevator speech,” one of the biggest buzzwords in career development these days, supposedly originated in a book by an English quality management expert in the early 1980’s called “The Art of Getting Your Own Sweet Way.” It refers to a pre-prepared, comprehensive set of ideas presented to an influential person in the time span of a standard elevator ride, that ideally produces some sort of positive action.
Though often used in the context of promoting business ideas (think reality TV show “Shark Tank”), with the high level of competitiveness in the job market in recent years and the subsequent emphasis on the power of networking, the term has found its way into the vocabulary of career development. In this case, individuals are not pitching a product or idea, but themselves. That is, within a short period of time, summarizing who they are and what they are looking for, as well as what they have to offer and why they are a good fit for the person they are in the “elevator” with.
It can be a tall order, including knowing what to say, when to say it, and for how long. But given the proven effectiveness of networking, with estimates that over 80% of jobs are gotten either directly or indirectly through connections, the “elevator speech” has become a key element of the process, and thus important to the repertoire of graduate students, whether exploring, pursuing, or enhancing their academic or non-academic careers.
Here is some guidance for your elevator speech:
What to say. There is no exact way to create an elevator pitch, and it certainly should vary depending on the context in which you employ it, but there are important main elements. The three key aspects in the employment search process are:
- Area of interest
- Ability to succeed in this area (education, experience, skills, strengths)
- “Fit” for targeted employers
Your speech, then, should ideally touch on these three areas in a way that is personally unique and differentiating. For example:
I’m completing the last year of my Ph.D. program in Developmental Psychology at UCSB. In addition to my research on increasing cultural diversity in after-school programs, I’ve spent the past two years working as a Program Evaluator for the A.S. Education Group in Santa Barbara, analyzing content, programming and accessibility of after-school programs. And during my masters program I was a Project Coordinator for Project Help in Los Angeles, overseeing the development of school-based programming for urban adolescents. I came to UCSB thinking that I wanted to pursue a career in academia, but after getting this great experience and discovering a kind of unique ability to integrate complex theories with front-line needs, I have decided that my interests and skill-set are a much better fit for leading programs. I’m excited to get to talk to you, as I’ve followed your program the past few years and feel that the work you do with adolescent education and development is very much in line with my strengths and career aspirations.
Where to use. The elevator speech is utilized at a variety of networking, job search, and professional development events and opportunities, both in person and online. For instance:
- Formal networking functions and events
- Other professional development-oriented functions and events
- Career fairs and employer information sessions
- Informational interviews
- “Professional” social media and other online correspondence
- Casual encounters (sometimes even on elevators)
- In the interview, answering the questions “tell me about yourself” and “why are you interested in this position? (Note: answers in this context will normally be longer than 30-60 seconds).
When to employ. There is no simple strategy in regards to the appropriate time to whip out your elevator speech. The phrase “you’ll know it when you see it” comes to mind as sound advice. In more formal job search- and networking-oriented settings, it is generally expected that attendees will be assertive in selling themselves and are indeed often prompted to do so with a statement like, “Tell me about yourself” or the question, “What are you looking for?”
In other circumstances, the prompts are not so clear. The best guidance in these situations includes:
- First ask questions and genuinely listen to the person you are talking to, ideally focusing on professional or career related topics.
- Look for an appropriate time to share.
- Don’t just jump into your elevator speech if not prompted.
- It may be more effective to integrate the elements of your speech into a longer conversation.
- Prepare! Write, edit, practice, and get feedback.
- Convey your uniqueness – what differentiates you, causes you to stand out.
- Share what you’re passionate about and looking forward to doing.
- Make it sound human and real, and don’t be afraid to smile.
- Prepare a few variations for different circumstances.
- Don’t brag! There’s a difference between emphasizing your accomplishments and attributes and bragging about them.
For more information about networking strategies, check out the slides from John Coate's March 4 networking workshop. UCSB Career Services offers an effective array of resources, programming, coaching, and other services. For more details, visit the Career Services website.
John Coate is the Assistant Director and Coordinator of Graduate Student Services for UCSB's Career Services. He periodically writes post on career and professional development issues for The GradPost.