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The elevator pitch: how to make an impression in less than a minute

Think about it. Some of the biggest conversations of your life are also the shortest. Have you ever had the luxury of more than one minute to one hour to really sell yourself while networking or being interviewed?

People in the office go out of the elevator

The ‘elevator pitch’ is said to come from the early days of Hollywood when ambitious screenwriters catching a decision-maker in an elevator would pitch their film idea in the few seconds between floors.

The modern equivalent can be bumping into someone from a company you’d like to work for at a networking event, securing a coffee with an influential figure, or that first interview that gets your foot in the door.

In any of these situations you have a limited time to get across your personal story in a memorable way that will give your ‘target’ the desire to find out more.

But the very limits of the quick pitch can also be your friend, says Tony – an executive coach and business consultant with extensive experience in healthcare and consumer markets. They teach you the discipline of shaping your story into an interesting and compelling ‘listen’ that makes your audience (whether an individual or an interview panel) quickly see your potential.

The pitching scenarios

“When candidates start their MBA, the majority are unprepared for pitching themselves and may feel they can put off thinking about this until closer to the time when they are looking for a job.” says Tony. “But this is missing a big opportunity – your own cohort – they’re great people to try your pitch on.”

Tony Dutton, MBA Careers Consultant

Tony Dutton

In the practice sessions he offers to Cambridge MBA students, Tony helps them prepare for four pitching scenarios – the coffee chat; the icebreaker; the job interview and the spontaneous meeting. Tony says:

“Start by identifying which situation you will, or could, be in and the potential questions you are likely to be asked in each one. This will help you build an authentic, flexible pitch, tailored to suit any situation.”

The coffee chat is likely to start with your ‘target’ asking you questions like “Why did you want to meet with me today?” and “What do you know about me?”. Avoid the classic mistake of thinking it’s just a chat, Tony advises:

“So often people go along completely unprepared and thinking it will just be an informal exchange. It isn’t. Every situation is a potential job interview. The person you are meeting is weighing up everything about you – how prepared you are for their questions; how much research you’ve done into them and their organisation; how cogently you tell your own story. Even your body language – how poised and confident you seem – is being assessed. Don’t wing it. Every second counts and you need to be prepared.”

This also applies to the icebreaker – the first few minutes of a formal interview. Use this precious first impression period to give a coherent summary of your career so far, including your main achievements, while getting across your ability to be self-reflective and self-aware.

“I frequently interview people who can tell you in detail what roles they’ve held and what their competencies are. But I can get that from their CV. What I’m really looking for is someone who can tell me in those few minutes at the start of an interview, what their main successes have been; how these have enabled them to learn and grow as a person; why they are now looking for a change in direction; where they hope to get to and – crucially – what they are offering me and my organisation that we can’t get from anyone else.”

For the job interview, which is just a longer version of the elevator pitch, the main area where candidates fall down is dealing with open or unstructured questions. Tony reports that he constantly finds that apparently simple questions like ‘why are you here today?’ or ‘what impact will you make in this organisation from day one?’ can throw candidates completely.

“They give unstructured responses which waste time and don’t help the interviewer at all. Candidates need to be prepared for the open-ended question with responses which are just as structured as for a more closed question like ‘where did you do your degree?”

The spontaneous pitching scenario

Finally, the spontaneous pitching opportunity, when out of the blue you are introduced to someone you admire at a networking event – or maybe even run into them in the elevator!

“You may have only 45 seconds to a minute, but you can still deliver a powerful and memorable message – if you’re prepared. You need to get across the pre-MBA you – your career journey so far. The current you – how the MBA has changed you and what insights you have gained about yourself. And the future you – what new direction are you exploring and what’s your rationale for it? If you get the feeling it’s gone well then don’t forget to ask politely if you can link with them on LinkedIn.”

It can be a bewildering moment when you suddenly come face to face with an idol and you need to be ready. But if you feel you’ve ‘fluffed’ your lines then all is not necessarily lost.

“If it didn’t go as well as you wished, then send a short polite follow up email saying what you wished you’d said – your pitch in writing. It shows you’re tenacious and persistence can pay off.”

The elevator pitch is a vital, but underestimated, part of your career preparation, make sure you can tell your personal story in a memorable way.