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What Makes A Compelling Elevator Speech:

Escaping or Avoiding Pain


Imagine riding an elevator with strangers. One asks you, “What do you do?” You have until the elevator reaches the next floor to answer the question. If you answer compellingly, then you could get sales leads or referrals. The goal is to answer so that you are asked for your business card before the elevator stops.

To be asked for your card by a stranger after a self-introduction that lasts no longer than thirty seconds: that is the mark of a compelling elevator speech. That is also where most fail.


good, but…

Consider Jeff’s elevator speech: “I work with people who want to accumulate wealth by investing in undervalued stocks.”

This is what Brenda says: “I help couples to furnish and decorate their new homes in a style that’s all their own.”

Jeanette says, “I work with growing companies that need to find talented people so that they can continue growing and become more successful.” 

Each of these is good enough that Jeff and Brenda and Jeanette can give out their business cards. They concisely describe their customers and the benefits they provide. Yet, these elevator speeches lack the power to compel most people to ask for a business card before the elevator stops.

Unless you currently identify as somebody who wants to accumulate wealth by investing in undervalued stocks in those terms Jeff might only be remembered for his sharp suit and earnest smile.


empathy gives power

The power to compel a stranger to ask for your business card comes from describing with empathy the emotional discomfort or pain that you relieve. The core of a compelling elevator speech: your empathetic understanding of the pain you relieve for your market.

Brenda’s elevator speech again, with  pain relief added: “I help couples to furnish and decorate their new homes in a style that’s all their own – and they don’t have to do all of the shopping.” Many people would like relief from the chore of shopping for furnishings and decorations. With only ten more words, Brenda honours that and offers relief.

fluff is forgotten

At parties, mixers, wedding receptions, conferences, and a variety of other situations where people meet for the first time, people often forget others they meet. That’s how elevator speeches get condensed into simple impressions.

For example, Ed uses this elevator speech: “I help people just like you to get the car of their dreams. I’ve been with Paul’s Auto Brokers for eight years, now, and I still find it amazing how we make car ownership dreams come true. We find deals on new and used wheels that you wouldn’t believe.”

To most people he meets, Ed’s elevator speech sounds too good to be true. He has considered adding more about his background, or the award-winning service department at Paul’s Auto Brokers, or that he had a record year last year. The trouble is, unless you can empathetically describe the pain you relieve, most people do not care about such things.

The simple impression Ed creates centers around his enthusiasm and possible overstatement. (Still amazing after eight years?) Ed needs to demonstrate relevance.

when it’s all fluff

Until you credibly mention emotional discomfort, and at least imply that you can help, most people do not care about:

  • your education
  • your business hours
  • your business location
  • the awards you’ve won
  • how many staff you have
  • your basic business values
  • how much experience you have
  • how long you’ve been in business
  • the important people you deal with
  • amusing rhymes about your company.

pain relief = relevance

Relevance makes an elevator speech compelling. Genuine understanding of the pain you can relieve demonstrates relevance to any listener. That’s why Jeannette would be wiser to say something like this: “You know, a lot of companies in this area are having quite a tough time finding good people to hire. Then, it can be frustrating to keep a good team together. Of course, letting people go can cause lost sleep, too. As a Certified Human Resources Professional, I help to make life easier for senior managers. Can you relate to that?”

If your babysitter’s parents had just divulged their hiring woes, would you ask Jeannette for her card? If your neighbour had recently lamented having to lay off workers, would you ask Jeannette for her card? If you were frustrated about office politics affecting performance among your own employees, would you ask Jeannette for her card?

not about you

An elevator speech should communicate:

  • an inclusive opening ("You know...")
  • three problems you solve (succinctly described in empathetic terms)
  • that you solve such problems (concisely stated in nurturing terms)
  • a hook question. (e.g. "Can you relate to that?")


When people ask what you do, do not talk about yourself. Rather, describe concisely the emotional discomforts that you relieve perhaps affecting your listener or people they care about. Then, state that you help to relieve such pains. Now your business card is worth asking for.

After 30 seconds or fewer (before the elevator reaches the next floor) you should be asked for your card by a stranger. Until that happens, you do not have a compelling elevator speech.

- Glenn R Harrington, Articulate Consultants Inc.


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