Death to the Elevator Pitch

You have to stop using your Elevator Pitch to introduce yourself at networking events.

Before we get into several far superior alternatives, let me tell you about the history of this concept called the Elevator Pitch.

The History of the Elevator Pitch

It started in… you guessed it… an elevator.

According to Chris Westfall, the term has its origins in Hollywood. Screenwriters would hang out in the lobbies of LA’s chicest hotels hoping to bump into a studio executive, share an elevator ride, and pitch their script ideas to the captive audience. If you’ve been to LA, you know that in such a flat city, those would have been extremely short elevator rides. Hence, the “Elevator Pitch” was born to sell a screenplay idea in 30-seconds.

Then business came in and co-opted the term. Aileen Pincus describes Elevator Pitching as a skill every businessperson needs to be able to sell one’s business to others. Anyone in Silicon Valley, the Venture Capital Industry, or the entrepreneur community worldwide will tell you how important it is to be able to Elevator Pitch your idea. And the rest of the world can watch Elevator Pitching at its best on Shark Tank.

Today, professionals worldwide use an Elevator Pitch to quickly establish the value of an idea so they can get to the Ask. If there isn’t an Ask, it’s not an Elevator Pitch. In the case of a Hollywood executive, the Ask is a meeting or the chance to submit your full script for review. In the case of a Venture Capitalist, it’s the opportunity to make a more thorough pitch of your business.

The Point of an Elevator Pitch

It’s really important to understand that the point of the pitch isn’t really the idea itself, it’s the Ask – the follow up opportunity. No one ever bought an idea in an elevator. The best they did was agree to consider buying it later.

The Elevator Pitch only exists to compel the listener to invite follow up.

For example, this Elevator Pitch would probably inspire anyone to offer you a follow up meeting: “Elon Musk has agreed to invest in my new business. Can I come by and tell you more about it next week?”

What’s the idea? Who knows? Who cares? If Elon Musk is interested, it must be interesting. The Ask will be granted, and that makes this an effective Elevator Pitch.

Why an Elevator Pitch is not for YOU.

Check out how Wikipedia defines the Elevator Pitch: An Elevator Pitchelevator speech or elevator statement is a short summary used to quickly and simply define a process, product, service, organization, or event and its value proposition.

Let's look at that again.

A short summary used to quickly and simply define a processproductserviceorganization, or event and its value proposition.

If the thing you are pitching is a process, a product, a service, an organization, or an event, please please please, learn how to Elevator Pitch.

But if the thing you are introducing is a human being, stop it.

Elevator Pitching Yourself Will Almost Never Work.

Hopefully the discussion above foreshadowed the reasons you can’t use an Elevator Pitch on yourself. But if it isn’t crystal clear, just take a moment and reflect on your own experience trying to Elevator Pitch yourself.

If you are like most people, when you tried to trot out a cleanly memorized concise speech about how awesome you are to a group of strangers, at best you felt slightly awkward, but more likely, you felt like a total douche.

Here's why:

  1. A product or an idea is easy to summarize in 30 seconds. A human being is far more complex. Attempts to reduce yourself to a few soundbites will make you seem smarmy and manipulative.
  2. The express objective of the Elevator Pitch is to get to the Ask. But networking events aren’t an Egyptian bazaar. In fact, you should leave your agenda at home when meeting people for the first time. Networking is about engaging in dynamic dialogue with new friends.
  3. Since an Elevator Pitch is about a value proposition, any way you would attempt to pitch yourself would amount to bragging. Bragging never feels good.
  4. An Elevator Pitch really needs to be tailored to the audience. A value proposition is inherently relative to a specific individual, and when you are meeting someone for the first time, you have no idea what they would value.
  5. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the point of an Elevator Pitch is to sell something. And you should NEVER sell yourself. Least of all to strangers you are meeting for the first time.

Networking events are about making new meaningful human connections, building relationships, and getting to know people in a dynamic conversational environment.

That means that Elevator Pitching will fail almost every time.

So instead of memorizing a canned speech about your awesomeness, rely on spontaneity, positive emotion, and topics that build on dialogues currently in motion.

It may sound complicated, but in truth, you already know exactly how to do this.

For more tips on how to edge your way into a conversation already under way, check out this post.

But let's talk about the moment someone turns to you and says “What’s your story?”

Or, even without a word, that moment when the group looks at you, and you know it is your time to introduce yourself.

(Please, don’t introduce yourself until you have the floor. If you don’t know what I mean, read this post.)

The key to introducing yourself to anyone anywhere and engendering a real connection lies in this one concept:


Talk about something you like, something that makes your eyes light up, something that makes you come alive when you think about it.

Positive emotion creates positive connection. If you come alive as you are talking, so will everyone around you, and they will inherently want to know you better.

To make this really easy for you, we’ve put together our simple framework for personal introductions to strangers:

Introduce yourself

Here’s how it works.

Step 1

Choose something you love, something you want, or something that matters to you.

Customize the item you choose based on the context and who you are talking to. Is it a corporate networking event for a company you are interested in working for? Talk about an aspect of your work that you love or your next professional desire (goal).

Are you at a benefit for supporters of your local animal shelter? Consider choosing a non-professional passion like the local restaurant scene or a certain kind of music.

Pro tip: Consider making a list of 5-10 things you love, want, or care about before you go to an event so you can have fresh lively topics top of mind.

If you are concerned about which topics might be taboo, learn how to navigate social distance. (This is especially relevant if you are networking in a culture or country different from your native one).

Step 2

Elaborate on that topic using the simple framework of time: past, present, and future.

Here is how that might sound. Let’s take a very simple example you might use at a social event.

Thing you love: Travel

  • Past: I set a goal to visit 20 countries by the year 2020, and I have now been to 14!
  • Present: These days I am really focused on work and haven’t had the chance to get away in months.
  • Future: For my next trip, I am eyeing Southeast Asia. Does anyone have destinations to recommend?

You can see how easily this lets you get into the conversation, talk about something meaningful to you, and then open the dialogue up to others. You will be remembered as an interesting person with genuine passions who invites the input of others.

If the conversation already in motion is focused on travel, hobbies, or leisure time, an introduction like this would be a perfect way to connect with the group and let the conversation go from there.

If you are in a more serious professional context, focus on work. Choose as aspect of your work that you love (like helping businesses streamline processes, analyzing data to discover innovative solutions to challenging problems, or connecting better with consumers through social media) and let the listeners know how that aspect of your work has gone in the past, what you are working on now, and how you hope to expand on it in the future.

Using this simple framework, you can improvise an infinite number of ways to introduce yourself to strangers in a concise and inspiring way. Have fun with it. With just a little practice, you too can achieve Self Introduction Mastery and never introduce yourself exactly the same way twice. (and don't forget to create a future for all those great new connections!)

So save the Elevator Pitch for your next big business idea, and instead, make meaningful new connections using the power of spontaneity and enthusiasm.