The Elevator Pitch

How the “30 second pitch” can limit authenticity and lead us to ask the wrong questions.


The Elevator Speech has become commonplace in the arenas of communications, sales, and networking in American culture. An Elevator Speech is essentially a thirty-second opportunity to express who you are, what you do, and why someone should be interested. The name and concept derive from an unplanned meeting of persons on an elevator. Each individual may try to express his or her self, idea, business, or product in the time duration of the elevator ride. These quick encounters are crucial because of the fast paced nature, technological aptness, and hurried lifestyles of our society. The Elevator Speech has become necessary, but I would like to suggest that it is also a tool for personal growth and an indicator of a societal problem.

Those who have engaged the principles of servant leadership often speak of maintaining simplicity in daily life. This simplicity presents individuals with an opportunity to deliberately choose to live with a conscious appreciation of their surroundings. In a culture that is frequently insisting that we are not enough, the choice to live simply affirms by calling one to be here and now. Simple living reminds each who participates that it is necessary to stop asking “am I enough?” and to begin accepting oneself as abundant. This orients the servant leader towards compassion and towards gratitude. The Elevator Speech is helpful to sustaining the simple life because it makes evident what is most substantial and commendable within any given situation. Prior to offering an Elevator Speech it is required that the presenter reflect on who they are, what they are doing, and how to engage the world in their work. These reflective questions provoke the simple life into being. They cause one to chip away all that is unnecessary and to focus on what is significant; to clear away the clutter so the message may be heard. In this way the Elevator Speech is a tool for a life oriented towards simplicity and reflection.

Along with being helpful for personal growth the Elevator Speech is also a symptom of a larger societal problem, a lack of authentic dialogue. I came across an article offered by a well-respected U.S. journal. This journal suggested helpful tips on creating the perfect Elevator Speech. However, one suggestion they offered highlights the problem at hand. The suggestion is summarized as follows: when offering an Elevator Speech it is important to assume that your audience will only be asking themselves, what’s in it for me?

Authentic dialogue requires a mutuality between sharing and listening. The Elevator Speech threatens the strength of both of these positions. Those who share their Elevator Speeches must do so with scarcity has part of their motivation. The purpose of the speech is to speak your idea fast enough to squeeze into someone’s limited or private time period. To share from a position of authenticity requires the person sharing to feel safe, dignified, and respected. All three of these things can become impeded within the construct of this kind of speech.

I recently had lunch with a young man who serves his community through ministering in his church. Towards the end of our time together he presented me with a new idea on which he had been focusing much his creative energy. I could feel a change in him as he shifted from his authentic self to the one presenting the pitch about this new ministry program. It felt to me that, since we had finished our meals, he assumed my time was minimal. I stopped him in his Elevator Speech version of the idea by simply pointing out his passion for this new idea and asking him to go into detail. I don’t claim to be a great listener, but by pointing out his passion and asking for more details, I gave him an opportunity to relax and allow himself to present his idea from a place of authenticity and wholeness.

What’s in it for me? This question threatens the possibility of truly hearing while one is listening. The result of listening to others with only one’s personal gain in mind is to never fully hear. To access the depth of who we are as human beings, to realize our potential, or to come close to the sacred we must begin to rethink the question, what’s in it for me? Rumi, the thirteenth century Sufi poet, states that “you are searching among the branches for what only appears in the roots.” Authentic dialogue requires mutuality between sharing and listening. To listen fully one must try to let go of wanting more and allow oneself to just be listener.

The Elevator Speech can be useful because it can help one to live more reflectively and simply; it can also be an indicator of a society struggling to truly listen. A Servant Leader knows the importance of simple and reflective living, mutuality, and authentic dialogue. My challenge is to try to minimize asking, What’s in it for me? Rather, let us begin to ask, How may I serve? This question will take us to the depths of both ourselves and those we encounter. To give oneself in service to another is to listen well, and to discover the roots from which all things grow.

*originally posted: http://www.servantleader.org/blog/2015/1/26/the-elevator-pitch

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