Still Crazy after All These Elevator Speeches

Andrew Stanten


It’s enough to make me want to hack through a door with an axe. On a daily basis I see the single most important, fundamental marketing principle being ignored.

We spend a lot of time in this column talking about forward-thinking, technology-oriented marketing ideas—SEO, Ad Words, blogging, social media. But while these evolving tools have greatly expanded opportunities for businesses to promote themselves, we seem to have lost sight of the number one (albeit less sexy) tried and true marketing fundamental: Brand messaging.

Long before email—let alone Facebook, YouTube or Twitter—we all relied more personal communication, a phone call, Chamber mixer, industry event or prospect meeting. Then as now, the best arrow to have in your promotional quiver was a well-articulated “elevator speech”—a short, compelling description of who your company is, what it does and why anyone should care. (We call that “features” and “benefits.”) Something you can explain on an elevator ride between floors. In other words, the top tier of your brand messaging.

Nowadays, the elevator speech seems to be a lost art, and that drives me nuts. If anything, the elevator speech is even more critical today, because its reach is effectively limitless thanks to the Internet. Here’s a simple test: Can you quickly cut-and-paste a single paragraph from your business’s website that succinctly describes your company and articulates its unique selling advantage? You’d be amazed at how many CEOs can’t even do it.

I recently gave a talk on integrated marketing, and afterward had the opportunity to speak with several CEOs. Of the four to whom I spoke, only one came close to nailing the elevator speech. The other three started with something along the lines of “Well, when this company started 20 years ago, we….”

When the leaders can’t explain the essence of their company, how can they expect the sales people, PR team and receptionist to do it? Brand messaging must be clear, consistent (that’s why they call it “boilerplate”) and permeate the entire organization—from the board room to the reception desk. Make sure everyone in your organization not only memorizes it, but believes it. With that in mind, here’s how to craft the ideal elevator speech.

Start from the top (pun intended).

Company leaders get the hot potato. The goal is to articulate the vision, purpose and value proposition of the company—again, succinctly. The overall framework for your elevator speech should follow the old journalism trick called the “inverted pyramid”—start broad and get more specific as you go along. That way, if you only have 15 seconds to make the pitch, you cover the “First Floor” of the elevator speech to paint a quick picture of your company’s value proposition. If they’re hooked enough to hear more, you can ride the elevator higher.

But keep in mind—elevator rides are short. The tendency will be to wax more and more poetic with each “floor,” but resist the temptation. Keep it short and sweet. Stick to a specific word count. Time yourself if you have to.

First Floor

Articulate the distinctive aspects of your business in broad strokes, finished with a with clever punch or value proposition.

Poor example: “Acme Corporation started 25 years ago as a manufacturer of industrial batteries with a proprietary process and a rich background in chemical and environmental engineering. Over the years our company has gone through a lot of change. Now we are a leading supplier to the cell phone industry.”

Better example: “Acme produces the smallest, lightest, longest-lasting cell phone power sources in the world. That’s why 4 of the top 5 manufacturers of handheld devices call ABC when they go to the drawing board for their next generation products.”

Second Floor

Get more specific about what your company does, what makes it distinctive, and the benefits your company delivers.

Example: “Our exclusive focus on the unique power demands of cell phones makes Acme invaluable to handheld manufacturers. Our batteries are 20 times lighter and last eight times longer than industry average. We are now brought in to consult on the design and technology of the devices themselves, which enables cell phone manufactures to produce user-friendly and environmentally friendly products more quickly, commanding higher price points than their competitors.”

Third Floor

This the “donut” part of the elevator speech—a hole where you fill in messaging based on your audience. Think through the different constituents you may need to pitch in the future—investors, suppliers, CEOs, creative types, etc. Fill the donut hole with audience-specific, benefit-oriented messaging. Get inside their heads. Talk the talk. You’ll hook an electrical engineer with dramatically different messaging than you will a chief financial officer.

Fourth Floor

If your audience is still “on the elevator” with you by this point, pull out illustrative examples—market reach, ROI data, competitive differences and recognizable client names that give specific, provable credence your previous claims.

Fifth Floor

The fifth and final floor is expertise and experience. Highlight the brightest minds on your staff, distinctive process points, awards and industry recognition.

Where to begin?

For most company leaders, locking yourself in a room and staring at the keyboard isn’t the best way to start. Write the broad outlines, then make it a collaborative process with select “most valuable players” from throughout the organization—from customer service to sales, reception to C-level. Develop a short list of questions—like those below—that each individual should answer ahead of time. The commonalities will provide great direction. The differences will kick-start great conversations (if the CEO and head of sales don’t kill each other first).

Example Elevator Speech Questions

  • What is one thing that ABC Corp. does better than the competition? What do we do worse?
  • What is our primary business goal?
  • Who are our core customer demographics?
  • What is our geographic reach?
  • What are the most common questions that potential customers ask?
  • What are the biggest current trends in our market space?
  • What’s the most effective marketing we’ve done to date? Least effective?
  • What is the most important position in the company?

Make no mistake—this is one of the most difficult and potentially painful exercises you will ever do for your business. But short-term pain equals long-term gain. We went through more than 40 drafts of my initial company elevator speech over the course of many weeks before it flowed and resonated with credible, concise, informative messaging. Then we went outside the company to “friends and family”—and received outstanding objective counsel that allowed us to refine it even further. We revisit our core messaging each year as part of our marketing planning process.

Once the elevator speech is complete, revisit all of your collateral—website, brochures, trade shows, advertising, PR, social media—and make sure the new messaging is put into place. Finally, distribute it to everyone on the staff and make sure they’ve read it. Making sure they believe it is your ongoing job as the company leader.

Andrew Stanten

Andrew Stanten co-founded Altitude Marketing in 2004. As CEO, he ensures the right people are on board, delivering world-class marketing services to Altitude’s global client base, and staying true to Altitude’s mission, vision and values.
Andrew possesses an innate ability to process, organize and summarize massive volumes of client and market information and turn it into actionable, strategic thinking. This enables Team Altitude to get smart about a company quickly—and develop winning, integrated approaches that vault clients into a position of prominence and strength.
Andrew graduated from Syracuse University and earned his MBA from Lehigh University.