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Thirty seconds to ‘sell’ yourself—why it pays to have an elevator pitch up your sleeve

Written by: Stephanie Sparrow
Published on: 20 Apr 2015

The ability to develop a personal brand has become a pre-requisite for career success. Knowing who you are, and what you stand for, are as important to your credibility as your qualifications.

Elevator_image_250One of the best ways to convey your “branding” is to develop an elevator pitch— a description of your career achievements and motivation which can be delivered in less than 30 seconds. Having a few engaging words up your metaphorical sleeve means that you are likely to strike the right tone in face- to-face situations such as networking, initial interviews or introducing yourself at a conference or dinner.

“You never know when you might need an elevator pitch”, says Lincoln Coutts, head of career transition at Lee Hecht Harrison.

One of the benefits of having an elevator pitch is that in the first minutes of meeting others it can help them to see beyond your job title, says Coutts. “This is important because at a drinks party, for example, opinions are formed about you based on what you do”, he says.   In other words introducing yourself just in terms of your title, such as ‘HR business partner,’ on its own might sound bland, or the title could mean something different to people from another organisation, whereas if you summarise your role (such as “I match our peoples’ talents to our business objectives”), you help the listener to form a clear picture of your activities and encourage them to find out more.  

The pitch should act as a “starting point for discussions”, says Coutts, “not a designed ‘answer moment’”.

Such a starting point will involve others and so, even though you are aiming to talk about yourself, it will not seem one-sided. A “designed answer moment”, will exclude discussion and make you sound at best lacking flair, and at worst, boastful.

So how do you strike the right tone? According to leadership psychologist Averil Leimon, an effective elevator pitch draws on “self- knowledge” to show the listener your strengths and key achievements, and in speaking with “humility, but not modesty”. She advises clients to start by drafting a statement of 40 words about themselves and to practice delivering it in front of a mirror.

“It’s about being professional,” says Leimon, who is director of the White Water Group, “plan, prepare and practice”. Learning to speak with humility means using phrases like “I chose a great team to help me with this project”, which is more honest (and impactful) than “my team ran this project.”

Estelle Wackermann, head of business development and marketing at the creative consultancy Wolff Olin, is accustomed to meeting people with flair and passion. She says that pitches should show “what you believe in”.  This makes others listen to you. “What drives you is compelling to others”, she says.

In practice this means describing your career journey, when relevant, in terms of the motivations that drove your journey rather than in a list of jobs and companies.  “And this will help you demonstrate that you are in control of your career, rather than jumping from one opportunity to another”, she says.

Wackermann also advises that some activities outside your main role be included in the pitch.

“Integrate them into your journey to build a consistent whole”, she says. “This could be what you want to blog or tweet about, a paper you’ve published, or talks you gave.”

And finally, all our experts advise that you think when and where to use your pitch and that it suits the occasion. “Adaptability will give you greater confidence as well”, says Leimon. For this reason you need to have a couple of elevator pitches at your disposal, and to know your “material”, in other words yourself, well enough to hold the listener’s interest.

“During an interview for example, there is nothing worse than telling a possible employer what they already know from your LinkedIn page”, says Wackermann, “Keep your story fresh and of the moment.”

In contrast, when networking (which should be thought of as a way to build new relationships) understand what others may want to learn, and then focus on how you could help them. “Being generous and useful to someone is the first step to a strong and lasting relationship,” says Wackermann. “No sales pitch can ever get you that, so make sure to keep your elevator pitch short to start with, and adapt it based on the person you are speaking to, “she says.