As an entrepreneur, either in a business of your own or working for “the man” but using an entrepreneurial mindset, there’s a problem we all have to deal with: Being the deer in headlights, frozen solid when we are asked the dreaded question that makes us gag:
“What do you do?”
So, there’s a tremendous amount of standard business wisdom about how you need to have an elevator pitch, a small nugget that will encapsulate what it is you do with the amount of time it takes to pitch your business to a theoretical once-in-a-lifetime investor in a chance elevator encounter. (If we pick Elon Musk as the new Richard Branson everyone wants to meet, then you might want to make a pneumatic tube length pitch instead of an elevator one.)
But that advice, while well-meaning and often bandied about, is just plain wrong. Why? Because it is the way the person you are pitching you snaps the mousetrap on you. (And, as with the mouse who gets stuck in that old-fashioned spring trap, it must be kind of painful.)
And the reason is, because of the filing-cabinet mentality of human nature.
“What do you do?”
“I’m a mortgage broker… working for (insert name). We do mortgages in the states of…” while you continue rattling off your well-rehearsed and scripted mini speech, the eyes of the person you are meeting and hoping to do business with are glazing over, trying to be polite while fighting the urge to yawn. At you!
You see, as soon as you said the words that describe what you do, be it mortgage broker, insurance agent, janitorial-services supplier, or anything else that is run of the mill, you have put yourself in the filing cabinet of people who do what you do within the brain of your prospect. (Or at this point in the conversation, suddenly reclassified as a former prospect.)
English Teacher? Click! You’ve been rolodexed! Gardener? Photographer? Writer? Filed under that category!
And with that, you are mentally placed out of mind, buried in the list of those the person already knows who fit that same category or space.
So, what you want to do when you meet people is certainly NOT to give them an elevator speech that packages what you do in a nice little sound bite. That is actually a terrible idea that will push business away from you, as opposed to getting you more of it.
So what is the right approach? What do you tell a prospect who asks you the dreaded “let me file you away” question, ready to spring the metal bar to trap you as soon as you get closer to the cheese they have so innocently guided you towards?
The answer is a very simple one—yet very, very effective. And when you start to dissect the so-called “elevator pitches” of star salespeople, like the ones who met you and managed to get you to do business with them, you’d be surprised at just how many follow the pattern I’m about to show you.
The goal of the elevator speech should not be in the slightest to tell them what you do. Rather the goal is to get an opportunity, a simple opening or showing of curiosity that will give you the ability to have a real conversation.
When someone asks me what I do, here’s what I answer:
Them: “Hello, Rabbi Issamar! Nice to meet you! What do you do?”
Me: “What I do doesn’t fit into one of those categories that people have in their mental filing cabinet, so it’s kind of hard to explain in a classification. You know those people who have businesses and want to make much more money by doing what they already do?”
(Notice, is there any other answer to that question? Plus now they know that I’m not easily classifiable, so they are at a loss for a mechanism to simply say, “Nice to meet you” and move on.)
Me: “Well, that’s what I do…”
Them (by now, intrigued.): “How?”
There we go folks! There’s no longer any sort of time constraint of just a few seconds for my answer, and we are now past the initial "hello" and into a conversation—a real conversation, where, assuming that you actually have a truly valuable offer for your prospect that will give them a winning edge in whatever and however your offer helps what they do, is a much easier close then an elevator pitch and business-card exchange—which doesn’t work anywhere close to the way folks expect it to. (How many business cards like those do you have laying around, for which you can’t even put a face to the name of the person you met? Thought so!)
The same way a creative advertisement or guerrilla marketing campaign (which should be part of the entrepreneurial arsenal, even though the lion’s share of budget should go toward direct response advertising that has trackable results) is meant to get your attention, so too is the initial schmooze with a prospect supposed to be worthy of the attention they have given you—exciting them at the possibilities you have shown them, and delivered in an educational and entertaining way that leaves them fascinated and wanting more.
Because when you have the prospective client in that spot—and can truly deliver, or even better, overdeliver—your business will skyrocket in ways you wouldn’t believe.