One of the toughest things about any networking conversation is that moment where we have to explain what we do.
If our work is unusual, we’re faced with the difficult task of explaining something complex and unfamiliar in a quick and interesting way. If our work is more common (eg. real estate or accounting), we have to somehow differentiate ourselves from scores of other people doing the ‘same’ thing.
Either way, it’s tough. I’ve shared my favourite hack for this before, in Mastering the Dreaded Elevator Speech. The gist of the technique is to start by telling people why we do what we do, before getting into the what.
As I’ve worked with people to apply this technique, I’ve noticed some common struggles and missteps. Here are my top tips on how to use your why to tell people what you do in a really effective and engaging way.
- Use it as an opportunity to reveal something about yourself: open up a little. Share some of your history, or something you’re passionate about. Give your new contact something to latch on to, something to work with in your subsequent conversation.
- Keep it as short: one sentence or phrase each for why, how, and what. The point of an elevator speech is to whet the conversational appetite – give the listener just enough info to get interested and come looking for more.
- Tailor it to the person you’re talking to: think about their history, what they care about. Of course, you can’t know everything about your new acquaintance, but consider their age, gender, the circumstances under which you’re meeting them…if your why can be something that is both true for you and resonant with them, that’s the ideal.
- Make it about money. I can’t count the number of people who initially tell me their personal and unique why is financial gain of some kind. This is never true. There are a million ways to make money, and everyone needs to make it somehow. There’s a reason you’ve chosen to make it in the particular way that you do. Focus on that. Besides, no one finds the fact that you’d like to pay off your student loans, retire early, or buy a bigger house a compelling reason to work with you or support you. Dig deeper.
- Reveal too much, too fast. As much as it’s important to reveal something of yourself, it is also possible to go too far. Balance is essential. On first meeting you, almost no one will be comfortable hearing all the deepest, darkest details of the life experiences that led you to do the work you do. Your new contact is not your therapist. At this early stage, keep it general and light. If your new contact is intrigued, deeper conversations can come later.
- Limit yourself to just one version. Your elevator speech will probably never be finished. I am constantly tinkering with mine. My fundamental reason for doing what I do doesn’t really change that much, but the environments I’m in, the people I’m talking to, and the projects I’m focused on all do. In explaining what I do, I feel there’s always room for improvement so I treat it as a perpetual work in progress. Don’t pressure yourself to perfect it or get it ‘right’. Just play with it as you go along.