Become a more inspirational and resonant leader by fully aligning who you are with how you communicate.

I know.

What do these two things possibly have in common? Before I delve into this, I want to reassure you that I know that this is not a perfect analogy. Functionally speaking, they are very different tools. However, as I hope to show you, in the wrong hands they are both equally useless.

An elevator speech (or pitch) is essentially a concise and rehearsed statement that can be used by anyone in any place to explain the purpose of your organization or idea (maybe even yourself). The most common are for entrepreneurs seeking investments, but ask almost anybody in business or in the non-profit world and they either have one or are seeking to craft one.

These short pitches are extremely helpful in most situations where you don’t have time to explain every nuance, and you need to make an impact right away. At their best they can be an incisive and powerful tool to capture the essence of your organization (your idea or your services). At their worst, they can be a smorgasbord of buzz words and vague jargon that sounds impressive but in the end “signifies nothing” (to quote Will Shakespeare).

A Trapper Keeper was an ingenious marketing idea that came out in the 1980s as a tool for students to organize their school stuff and look “cool” doing it. They came in differing colors and styles (I think that mine was almost exactly like the one shown above) and they promised an academic life free from clutter and chaos. I bought my first one in 7th grade.

There is, however, an inherent problem with Trapper Keepers. If you are an organized student who enjoys color-coding your notes, cataloging old homework and taking the time to reorganize the “Keeper” every few weeks, then this tool spoke your language. If you were like me, a disorganized student with little to no aptitude for linear thinking and an inclination to shoving homework into whatever pocket was available, the “Keeper” quickly became a mess of papers and doodles. Each year I bought a new one and by the end of the year it would be uselessly buried among my things in my room.

Now, I am by no means suggesting that my inability to use the Trapper Keeper effectively was the fault of the tool itself. Suffering as I did from a disinclination toward organized thought, the tool was pretty useless to me. In short, I just didn’t understand how to use it, and I didn’t really know who to ask for help. Was there a Trapper Keeper hotline? Here is where a good marketing campaign can cause some damage. The Trapper Keeper was sold as an antidote to disorganization, but that wasn’t exactly true. With some training (and maybe a little more gumption), I believe that I could have figured out how to use it effectively in school. However, as a panacea for all disorganization, well it just wasn’t up to that task. The same can be said for elevator speeches.

Consultants are big on offering the magic bullet. All you need is (fill in the blank), and I can help you achieve that. The elevator speech is an easy target and, like the process to define a mission statement, an organization (or a person) can learn a lot from having to be thoughtful about the words it uses to describe itself. Unless the organization doesn’t really know itself, then no matter how well-crafted, how beautiful sounding it may be, the elevator speech will end up like my Trapper Keeper as an afterthought at the bottom of your locker. Just like my example of the naturally organized person, people who have a knack or inclination towards sales are great at the elevator speech and love to use it for almost anything. The problem is that in the hands of an entrepreneur who has a great idea but no sales experience, the tool can create more confusion than it solves.

If the problem isn’t the tool itself, what is it? It all begins with knowing yourself or your organization. Try to answer these questions:

1. What problem (problems) are you trying to solve? (Example: sell quality goods at low cost, provide reliable services over a broad area, make products that are not only state of the art but also appeal to people’s sense of design, etc…)

2. What makes you proud of how you do this? (Needs to be connected to question 1 and be specific.)

3. What emotional effect do you want people to have when they hear about your idea (or organization/company)? (This is different than what you want them to do. Think of phrases like be inspired, be excited, trust, have courage)

4. Decide what it is about your organization that makes you feel that way and name it. (This may need to be a story.)

Once you have this information, you can begin to put together a specific and compelling statement that will articulate clearly what your organization does or who you are simply by combining the actually work you do with specific language. It may change a little depending on the audience, but the core of it will remain the same. The message will be strong because it will be true, but most importantly it will be a tool that you can use, not because the tool itself has value but because your understanding of the specialness of your organization (or your own work) will deepen.

This way the pitch or the Elevator Speech quickly goes from being a snazzy but incoherent marketing tool to an intrinsically valuable component of how you understand your organization and its value.

Even so, the Trapper Keeper was pretty cool…

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