Guide on the Side - The Elevator Speech - It's There for You

Marie Wallace has enjoyed a fulfilling career as a librarian, beginning in 1951 in academia with the University of California and transitioning in 1971 into the private law library world until her 1995 retirement from O'Melveny & Myers. She is the 1997 recipient of the American Association of Law Libraries' highest honor, the Marian Gould Gallagher Distinguished Service Award. Throughout her professional life, Marie has been a guiding force in the Southern California Association of Law Libraries, Practising Law Institute's programs for law librarians and Teaching Legal Research in Private Law Libraries (TRIPLL).   

Today, Marie has commenced on a new path she terms "Life in Progress," which enables her to pursue a diversity of interests as a master swimmer, law librarian, trainer, storyboarder and designer of wearable art. She continues to be a dynamic speaker and prolific writer on such topics as private law library management, presentations and training. She is a member of Toastmasters International and is active with the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) and in continuing education for private law librarians. She devotes her "free" time to various non-profit and civic activities. Always open to new ideas, Marie can be reached at: ax852@lafn.org.

(Archived August 15, 1998)


Have you ever lamented "Nobody knows what I do"? If so, it may signal that you need to explore the elevator speech. Most people ride an elevator several times a day. Each ride is a 30 second (more or less) opportunity for publicity and public relations.

It is significant that the elevator was created to move people. The Greek mathematician Archimedes is reputed to have invented it in the third century B.C. but Elisha Otis designed the first one with a safety mechanism. Probably neither was thinking about building a ubiquitous environment for communication when he perfected his invention. Today, many people regularly use the elevator to promote "self" and "mutual" interests. It is there for everyone: partner, employee, employer, client executive, dean, professor, judge, D.A., or student. Brief, sincere messages move people toward their goals.

The scenario starts something like this. You and the CEO, who you have been wanting to talk with, get on the elevator. The CEO says "How are things going?" or "What are you up to?" You beam and respond. "Solving our biggest problem, how to reduce the operating budget. I have some six figure ideas would you like to hear them?"

The elevator speech is versatile. It is there for you to use for a variety of purposes:

  • Request approval
  • Ask for help
  • Obtain an appointment
  • Introduce yourself
  • Establish a relationship
  • Let people know what you can do
  • Make your presence known
  • Market yourself or your department
  • Find out what the customer wants
  • Get feedback
  • Publicize your accomplishments
  • Establish goodwill
  • Do an end run around the gatekeeper
  • Network with colleagues and co-workers
  • Rainmaking

    You do not have to be moving vertically to use the elevator speech concept. For instance, during job interviews as the interviewer, you know you will need to describe your organization and its mission to the candidate. Are you ready with a succinct, brief and enthusiastic summary? As the interviewee, you know you are going to be asked some form of these questions and will need a 30-second response:

    • What are your strongest/weakest skills?
    • Describe your achievements on your present job.
    • What are your long term career goals?
You are in line somewhere and recognize a new department head. Take the opportunity to introduce yourself and let her know how your work is related to her department. You encounter a colleague you want to work with on a professional program as you register at the conference hotel. Let him know what you have in mind. Create your Web page so the HTML meta tags are designed to bring browsers face-to-face with you for a brief exchange in cyberspace--an electronic version of the elevator speech.

The idea can be used to "link up" any place where there is likely to be serendipity and a captive audience plus you are ready to communicate strategically:

  • Continuing education programs
  • Chance meetings with clients, colleagues or co-workers
  • Job interviews
  • Consulting
  • Training or teaching
  • Professional and public meetings.

The structure of an elevator speech is similar to a prepared speech. There is an opening, body and ending but the organization is very tight. It is no time to ramble, tell stories, provide extraneous detail or be unclear about objectives. You need to be brief, clear, enthusiastic and candid. Speak the other person's language and avoid using your own professional jargon. Try to differentiate yourself from your competition.

Plan to ride the elevator a few minutes before or after "rush" hour as the elevator speech is not suitable for a full house. You want a private not a public conversation plus there may be confidentiality aspects to what you want to say. Just as the elevator goes up or down, your role may change. You may be the initiator eliciting information from the other party or you may be the responder providing the information.

Although the elevator speech is essentially an improvisation, there are ways to prepare:

  • Summarize what you do in one simple and clear sentence. Some people call this your "hook" or executive summary.
  • Be able to briefly state your qualifications.
  • Find a metaphor for your leadership philosophy and values.
  • Be able to express the mission of your operation in a few words.
  • Articulate your professional and personal goals.
  • Join Toastmasters and gain experience speaking extemporaneously.

The elevator speech is an "opportunity to move up"--to rise and shine. To paraphrase American Express, "Don't leave home with out it." It is your personal leavening agent.