Hiring Wisely: Yes, It Pays For Job Candidates to Have a Good Elevator Speech


You don't need to be an entrepreneur to reap the benefits of a strong "elevator" speech.

Just in case you don't know what one is, an "elevator" speech is defined like this:

An elevator speech is a clear, brief message or “commercial” about you. It communicates who you are, what you're looking for and how you can benefit a company or organization. It's typically about 30 seconds, the time it takes people to ride from the top to the bottom of a building in an elevator."

What you learn from elevator speeches

Yes -- a good "elevator" speech needs to be short, sweet, engaging, and informative. My initial encounters with an elevator speech were in business school, and entrepreneurs get really good at them because they need to perfect a quick sales pitch for would-be investors in their would-be business.

But, if you spend too much time with elevator speeches you quickly learn two things:

  1. They take a lot of work and practice to perfect; and,
  2. The ability to quickly and smartly sell yourself in 30 seconds is a great skill to master even if you aren't an entrepreneur.

In fact, it's a critical skill that job seekers should be working on, too.

Elevator speeches for job candidates popped into my mind because it was mentioned by Cindy Whitehead, CEO of the Pink Ceiling, an organization that "finances and supports innovations for women," in this week’s Corner Office column in The New York Times.

Here’s what Whitehead said when asked, “How do you hire?

I’ll have them give me their three-minute commercial — tell me about yourself, soup to nuts — to see where they start. They may start when they were born, or in their résumé. I also love to hear what their favorite business is and why. It’s probably not a question they’re commonly asked, but those who will fit in with our culture will find it pretty quickly. And it will probably not be a formulaic answer. It will probably be about some mom-and-pop store that they grew up going to and why it was great."

Smart advice for job seekers and college grads

OK, I get that what Cindy Whitehead is asking isn't for a classic elevator speech, but what she wants is a slight variation of that same approach. The point is that in a great many circumstances, it pays to have practiced your core pitch about who you are, what you do that is important and adds value, and why they should care.

Being able to pitch yourself -- quickly, and at a moment's notice -- is something anyone should be able to do, especially those looking to impress a would-be employer that they have the right stuff for the job.

In The Times article, Whitehead also gives some great advice for college grads looking to get hired, although some may feel it is a little too forward for their tastes. Here's what she says in response to the question, "What career and life advice do you give to new college grads?"

I tell people to walk into your boss’s office in the first week and say, “I want to be great at this. I’m here to add value. I’d love any opportunity to learn.” If you’re sitting in front of me and telling me that you want to be great, I’m going to believe you."

Finding a defining moment

If you read that and say, "wow, that's really aggressive and forward," you would be right, but Whitehead has an interesting response when The Times follows up by asking, "Why don’t more people do that?"

(It's) because when you show up out of college, you think you’re there to learn the rules, and what you’re really there to learn is how to contribute. But you’re in an unfamiliar environment, you’re sort of feeling your way, and you would never have the audacity to say that to your boss.

But I think it will be a defining moment if you decide that you are there for a reason and you have a lot to offer. You need to declare that you’re ready to offer it."

I'm not sure that this is great advice for every college graduate out there -- it may work a lot of the time, but it would also turn off some would-be employers -- but her underlying notion that everyone needs to have a "defining moment" that helps them to stand out from the crowd and declare who they are and why they matter is a good one.

Yes, it's good for college grads and job candidates to have an elevator speech. It's about time to get practicing.

Editor’s Note: The Talent Insider blog is fueled by Checkster, and Checkster has great tools — like the Reference Checkup, the Interview Checkup, and the 360 Checkup — that can help you make better talent decisions as you grow and build your team.