What do you do?

The elevator pitch expanded

I don’t buy the “20 second” rule. When people ask “What do you do?” they’re just making polite conversation. It’s a robotic thing really where they are not paying much attention. But they will if you splashed cold water in their face. Think of it as you are talking to someone and they are about to leave the elevator: If you pique their interest, they’ll hold the elevator door and listen to you all day long. So don’t try to cram everything into 20 seconds. Instead, the best use of that first grace period is to make a bid for an attention extension, then you can talk about more.

The idea is to start with splashing the cold water. You have to break their expectations to make them pay attention. Most people answer the “What do you do” question with a single, predictable sentence: “I am an architect.” This is not only simple, but also boring. The person you are talking to will forget about you probably as soon as they leave the elevator. For us, it’s an evolved response to catch the exceptions. If you want to be interesting, you need to stand out, that alone will give you the edge of extension past 20 seconds. Splashing the cold water helps break the patterned thought process and get them interested in you. There’s no cookie cutter for this but the general rule should be to lead in small steps. You could start with something light such as a joke to answer, “What do you do?” - You have to wake them up, no one can tell you what works here. It needs to be authentic, unique and human and not just another “normal” interaction that their robot brain can coast them through.

Then ask a problem question. Once you’ve verbally shaken them awake, your next goal is to pose a problem that you suspect they will identify with. This must be spoken as a question. Questions have always been, and always will be, far more engaging than statements. Some respond with a simple yes/no but others launch into a detailed debate on the topic. This is perfectly fine, just let them talk because by now you have gotten them interested. This also gives you a chance to identify common ground which can be such a strong attractor, besides maybe shared laughter.

So at this point, you’ve gotten them interested and also given them a question to think about. This should only be temporary - You need to answer the question yourself because this is the punchline of “What do you do?” This is perhaps the most impactful method to answer the question because what you say now will make the listener think about how you relate to what they thought would be the answer. Moreover, this will let them see how you align with their thoughts and make it easy for you to approach them.

Finish with the curiosity statement. However, your answer will only want to make them ask another question. Here’s the simple formula for a good curiosity statement:

“I help/teach – (ideal client) to – (feature) so they can – (benefit).”

This statement is long but effective. It’s a step-by-step procedure because you can’t really attack this problem otherwise. There’s no such thing as a comprehensive elevator speech, you will always be missing things and you’ll never be able to paint an intersting picture. So stick to the next best thing: Try to engage them which allows you an extension to talk about more. Keep in mind that the last thing you want to show is that you’re pitching to them. Aside form that, less talking and more questions will keep you on the right track.

Lastly, nothing can match genuine interest. You need to slowly build up your enthusiasm and over the time get the person you’re talking to think in the same line as you. Once you can do that, you can convince them whether you two have common interest and then you can ask for a meeting. By this point, they know what you do, how much the two of you have in common and more importantly how can you be mutually beneficial to each other.

This post was inspired by Tim David’s post on HBR.