Elevator Pitch: Can You Explain Yourself In One Sentence?

I’m sitting in the passenger seat as my fiancé, Jess, drives down SE 82nd Ave. in Portland—a busy street that’s home to every major retail chain you could think of. We’re out running errands and, being the kind of guy who generally despises errands, I’m tired and bored.

One thing I like to do in times like these is read, aloud, every sign I see. It’s a little trick I use to make myself more aware of all the advertising I’m exposed to every day. Try it some time. The faster you drive, the more challenging and fun it gets!

Side note: This is an incredibly annoying hobby for everyone besides yourself. A patient car mate is required for best results.

This time, though, instead of reading every sign, every business name, every offer, I decide to add another level of challenge. I’ll pretend I am the business, and I’ll ask Jess if she wants what I’m selling.

“Do you want a Pizza?” (Pizza Hut)

“Do you want a mattress?” (Mattress World)

“Do you need any groceries?” (Trader Joe’s)

“Are you low on craft supplies?” (Michael’s)

“Do you want any pet food?” (Pet Co)
“Okay, this is getting a little annoying.”

Need some sex toys? (Lovers)

“Okay, I’ll stop.”

Playing this brief and ridiculous game, though, made me realize something important about advertising and how you sell yourself:

The most successful businesses can tell you what they do / sell in just one sentence. It’s called an elevator pitch—an explanation that takes less time to say than it would to ride an elevator up a floor.

You may not have a business to explain, but I bet you have a mission. If you do, shouldn’t you have a simple elevator pitch just like this? Something anyone can understand?

Image courtesy of Georgie Pauwels

An Elevator Pitch For Everyday Life

“So, what do you do?”

Every single person who’s ever lived has been faced with this question many times. Think about the last time you had to answer it. What did you say? More importantly, how was it received? Did everyone understand exactly what you do? Were they confused? Did you ramble on and lose everyone’s interest?

It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do, having an elevator pitch that quickly and effectively explains what you do will:

  1. Make introductions way easier. No more fumbling around trying to explain that you do lots of things and they’re all too hard to get across in a simple introduction.
  2. Identify people who can help you. When you deliver a great elevator pitch, you can instantly see if someone is interested in what you do and figure out how to best connect with them.

You might think an elevator pitch is just for business people, but it isn’t. If you hate answering “So, what do you do?” because you think your work is uninteresting[1], you can come up with a great elevator pitch that explains something about you that you do think is interesting.

But, creating a great elevator pitch depends on understanding why it was asked in the first place.

Why Do People Ask, “So What Do You Do?” (And How To Answer)

There are two reasons people ask you, “So, what do you do?”

  1. They just met you and they have no idea what else to say to start a conversation.
  2. They want to know if you can help them in some way.

Often, both of these reasons go together. Notice, though, what’s missing. No one asks, “So, what do you do?” to hear you talk about yourself. Especially for a long time!

Creating a great elevator pitch requires the understanding that it’s not for you; it’s for the person asking. You have to convey what you do in a way they’ll find interesting.

And how do you do that? Here’s a good strategy.

  1. Simplify what you do. Ask yourself the question, “So, what do you do?” from the perspective of a complete stranger. That means no jargon an average person wouldn’t understand. It also means be concise. You might do a 100 different things every day to “do what you do” but none of that matters to a stranger. Boil it down.
  2. State who you do it for. You might think what you do is for everyone, but is it, really? There’s probably a specific sub-set of people who get the most benefit from what you do. Nerds? Doctors? Educators? Teenagers? People who think or believe a certain way?
  3. Find a schema to help explain. If what you do is really niche and difficult for the average person to understand, you can help explain it by using a schema—knowledge the person already has that will help them understand what you do. For instance, I met a guy in San Francisco who explained the app he was developing to me as, “It’s what you would get it if you mashed up Okcupid and Meetup.com. It instantly made sense: It’s a dating app for people who prefer to meet in groups.

Here are a few examples:

  1. I [design seat cushions] for [airline companies]. I’m like a fashion designer for the airline industry.
  2. I’m [a fitness coach] for [elite athletes]. I’m like your trainer at the gym but for professional athletes.
  3. I [manage construction projects] for [building contractors]. I’m like your office manager, except I actually build the office.
  4. My app [remembers all your passwords] so you don’t have to. It’s like having an external brain and is almost as fast.
  5. My business [does forensic accounting] for [law firms]. We’re like crime scene investigators, but the crime scene is a bank book.

If you followed those three steps to create your own elevator pitch, what would you come up with?

1. If you really do think your work is uninteresting, you should probably fix that first!