Traditional business wisdom dictates that entrepreneurs and job seekers alike need to have an elevator pitch at the ready, prepared to sell themselves in a minute’s notice in the time it takes to ride an elevator. This professional pearl of wisdom is true and not-so-true. In the event that you are given the relatively unusual opportunity to speak uninterrupted for 1 to 3 minutes the elevator speech is golden. Often formal networking events give you this chance, although this seems to be less common these days.
If you trot out your tried-and-true elevator speech in an informal setting, however, you may risk grating on the nerves of your listener, who may not appreciate your 3-minute speech about how you want to use your technical skills and passion for social justice to connect children in the developing world with the internet. If you stop there, she may not mind. But if you continue to bore her with talk of your flair for languages, comprehension of the needs of third world technological challenges, and facility with people from different cultures, her eyes might start drifting to the egg rolls on the buffet table.
A person you’re speaking with in a huddle at a party or a networking event might respond better to a conversation like this:
Listener: “What do you do?” (Everyone asks this, but only about 13% of people really care.)
[Rule 1: Gauge her interest in your focus area.]
You: “Well, you know how internet access is critical to children’s education these days?”
[Rule 2: Pay attention to her body language]
She may respond like this:
Listener: “Yes.” (Nod heads, continues eye contact with you.)
Or like this:
Listener: “Mm-hmm.” (Eyes drift to 10 o’clock to gaze at the painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware.)
If, her response is more like B, keep your answer shorter. If it’s more of an A, you have a little longer leash:
You: “Well, I’m interested in linking kids in the developing world with computers and internet access in order to improve their standards of living and long-term opportunities.”
She may nod and say she has to refresh her drink. (And that’s okay, because she was never going to be terribly helpful anyway.) If she’s the right person for you to continue talking with, she’ll say something like, “I just read an article about technology in the third world in Wired magazine.” That’s when you say, well, nothing. You let her tell you about the article.
Don’t be afraid of a little silence. She’ll most likely fill it with something like, “It pointed out the challenges to computer networking in places like Ghana and Togo….”
See? Now you’re cooking. You’re having a truly engaged conversation with someone who’s sincerely interested in what you do. This provides the groundwork for a professional relationship with the potential for more depth and longevity. Even if she doesn’t hire you herself, she’s more likely to remember you (fondly) and refer you to an opportunity down the line. Worst case scenario, you’ve connected with someone with a similar sensibility who is cool and interesting. It’s a back-and-forth exchange instead of a “pitch,” which gives it more staying power and chance to become a substantial professional alliance.