Honesty in Elevators

What makes a great elevator speech?

Know Anthony Bourdain, author and TV personality?

Bourdain at Starbuck’s in Helsinki. (Just kidding. It’s from Wikimedia Commons.)

Here’s Bourdain’s recollection of his TV show pitch as reported by The New Yorker:

I travel around the world, eat a lot of shit, and basically do whatever the fuck I want.

Bourdain is playing to the crowd, of course, but replace the profanity with only a few specifics and you can imagine this probably was the elevator speech for his show.

Sometimes I get asked to help companies with their elevator speeches, and I like to show them Bourdain’s. I like that it’s simple and brutally honest.

36 pages of blah, blah, blah

If you’ve opened a newspaper in the last 12 months, then you can probably make a pretty accurate guess of Wells Fargo’s elevator speech. Writing in the Bourdain style, here’s my guess:

Stick the customer with all products possible, by any and all means necessary, until we get caught.

I tried to check my guess against Wells Fargo’s actual elevator speech, but I couldn’t find it. What I did find was a 36-page brochure about the company’s “vision and values.” Could that be one source of Wells Fargo’s trouble? How many employees would actually bother to read 36 pages?

Here, though, is the callout text from the Wells Fargo’s brochure, the one paragraph they believed in enough to highlight for the reader:

Regardless of our growing size, scope, and reach, we must never lose sight of putting our customers first and helping them succeed financially.

Take a minute now to pick yourself up off the floor. What’s the lesson here? “Don’t blatantly lie in elevator speeches” would be a good start.

33 readable words

Since Rex Tillerson has been in the news lately, I wondered what Exxon’s elevator speech might be. If I had to write one myself using the Anthony Bourdain honesty model, I might come up with this:

Dig shit up; burn; repeat until society stops us.

And here’s Exxon’s actual “statement of guiding principles”:

Exxon Mobil Corporation is committed to being the world’s premier petroleum and petrochemical company. To that end, we must continuously achieve superior financial and operating results while simultaneously adhering to high ethical standards.

Mine was pretty close, actually, though I forgot the critical part about making money. If you count, you’ll see that Exxon’s official statement requires 33 words, and it’s not so bad. Drop all the polite corporatespeak, and Bourdain could do it in 16 words:

Be number one. Make a buttload of money. Keep the body count as low as possible.

If I worked at Exxon, I would have no problem understanding this.

Try it yourself — à la Bourdain

Though most aren’t entertaining, there are lots of other great mission statements or elevator speeches out there. Patagonia wants to build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, and use business to inspire. American Express wants to be the world’s most respected service brand. Warby Parker (and I’ve got a pair) wants to offer designer eyeware at a revolutionary price.

As an exercise, try to write your organization’s elevator speech using as much Tony Bourdain profanity as you require. Throw out any fancy words, and keep it simple. As if you were talking to a child with an extremely limited attention span, or to the President of the United States.

How closely does your honest effort resemble the actual wording of the statement your company uses? If it doesn’t, perhaps your company’s official statement needs some re-working?

So what’s my company’s elevator speech? It goes like this: We make sure your communications get you taken seriously in English-speaking markets. Sorry, it’s not very funny, I know. But it’s honest, because much of the communication that comes out of my part of the world sounds like Borat wrote it.

I keep playing with it. I keep trying to make it more honest. When I do that I think of Bourdain. In addition to being a rock star kitchen personality, he is an unrepentant smoker and drinker, as well as a former cocaine and heroin user. He lets it all hang out. His no-nonsense nature and complete honesty is who he is, and it’s a large part of why he’s so successful.

So how about your company? Of course I’m not suggesting cocaine and heroin are the solution. But if all else fails you might give it a try.

Anthony Bourdain with CEOs of Wells Fargo and Exxon. (Wikimedia Commons.)

Scott Diel writes a lot of elevator speeches.