What’s Your Elevator Question?

“Ding!” The elevators doors close. You have no more than a few seconds in front of powerful people who have to listen to you. How are you going to encapsulate all of your talents and sell your potential? This is your one shot to make an impression and engage their curiosity. What are you going to say?

The Alchemy of the Pitch

Everyone who has ever interviewed for a job, qualified prospects at a conference or stood up in front of angel investors knows you need a punchy way to reel in your audience instantly.

There’s some debate over where the term “elevator pitch” originated. Wikipedia credits Ilene Rosenzweig and Michael Caruso with popularizing the phrase, but many others have also been credited, such as Gerry Hahn at General Electric and Professor Tom Boardman. Philip Crosby was using the term as early as 1972 in his book “The Art of Getting Your Own Sweet Way,” where he mentioned that he used the concept in teaching during the 1950s.

The basic idea all boils down to the fact that potential investors or customers are short on time and inundated with appeals for their attention. You have to capitalized on the rare moment when you have their undivided attention and rock their world before you take a breath.

Crafting an elevator pitch is a kind of alchemy — both an art and a science. Precise methodologies have been written. Crowded workshops have been hosted. Having a refined, go-to, impactful elevator pitch is an incredibly valuable tool. A successful elevator pitch earns you the right to engage your audience for another 2–3 minutes.

But there is a MASSIVE inherent problem with any elevator pitch. It’s all about you. It’s your pitch — and 99 percent of the time, your elevator pitch will be in front of an audience you know nothing about. If the pitch works, you’ve bought more time, so you proceed to throw a ton of s%@! on the wall and hope it sticks.

To truly connect with the audience, you need to know what makes them tick-their pain points, challenges, aspirations, fears, fantasies. Rather than spend those precious moments on your standard spiel, how you can get them talking?

What if you could ask the perfect question? What if you could tease out everything you need to deliver the most impactful pitch they’ve ever heard?

The Elevator Question

The pitch is dead. Long live the question. The right elevator question will illuminate the inner world of your audience. It can reveal insights into individuals and their companies that you’ll use to qualify them as a buyer or business partner. You’ll be able to internalize their biggest challenges and objectives, then turn them around to deliver a personalized elevator pitch. A great elevator question is far more powerful than a short, catchy statement about your company. It creates value and grabs their attention in an instant.

What makes the perfect Elevator Question?

An elevator question is not “What does your company do?” or “How vulnerable is your network security today?” or “What keeps you up at night?”

Here are six elements that you can use to ensure you have a top-notch elevator question.

  1. Open ended. Yes/no questions are not an option. The listener should be able to talk for several minutes after you ask them this question.
  2. Buyer-centric. Everything in their answer should be about them. If asked with no context, the buyer should have no indication that this has anything to do with you or your looming pitch.
  3. Universally answerable. Everyone should have an answer, no matter who you ask, and it shouldn’t be hard for them find their answer. Imagine you’re on a trade show floor. If you asked every person that walked by, each should be able to provide an answer, even outside of a selling scenario.
  4. Ever answer is unique. Everyone brings their own skills and each business has a one-of-a-kind combination of people, processes, and products. Craft a question that highlights the uniqueness of their primary challenge.
  5. Goes beyond qualification. If it could be dropdown field in your CRM system, then the question doesn’t go far enough. The question shouldn’t just determine if the audience is a good fit, but it should uncover a deeper layer of knowledge about them, both as an individual and the organization they represent.
  6. Ties into your core value proposition. From their answer, you should be able to follow a logical chain back to what you can do for them. Be careful that the question isn’t so obviously a setup that it comes out as a clear sales tactic. Be genuine. Be curious.

Deploying the elevator question with precision takes practice. It took me almost two years to find my perfect question. Once you have it, it will make your life much easier. Using answers as leverage, you can craft the rest of the conversation around them rather than anxiously hoping to say the right thing. If you’re confident, enjoy your job, and come up with a killer elevator question, you’ll actually really enjoy the unique responses. Genuine curiosity is essential and buyers are hungry for it. They’re used to being pitched and enduring interactions that aren’t buyer-centric. Asking an original question shows both respect and professionalism.

Shakespeare wrote, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Be brief, be witty, understand me and sell me. What’s your elevator question? Tell me yours and I’ll tell you mine.