Elevators Stories: prioritising the punchline

Taking your chance

How often have you bumped into a person that you really needs to impress only to have them called away halfway through your pitch? Talk about frustration. While you can’t always avoid this, this is a way of making the most of any time you do have in this situation.

The technique I’m going to talk about is called “an elevator story”. The name comes from the idea that one day you will get into an elevator with a person (The Target) that you want to interest in something that you are doing.

Typically your aim is to show The Target that you have an idea that they should back. The idea might be that you are doing a great job and are worth a pay rise or promotion or that you have a great business idea that they could profitably back.

For this blog post I’m going to use the example that I want a senior director to fund my leadership and management (L&M) programme. The pitch is that I’m currently running a pilot L&M programme for this organisation and I want them to commit to a full programme.

The problem

The problem you are facing is that you don’t know on which floor The Target will get out of the elevator. They may do this on the first floor, or ride all the way to the top. Imagine how would you feel if The Target  thanked you for your time and got out of the elevator just as you were getting into your stride.

While it is tempting to think about getting out with them and continuing the conversation in the corridor this is an intrusion on their privacy.

The accepted rule is that an elevator is a shared space in which conversations are acceptable but that conversations end when one party gets out.

The solution

The trick here is to prepare a story for these situations which gets all the good stuff in early on.

The way I think of such a story is that it’s the opposite of a joke: with a joke you spend time building up to a punchline but with an elevator story you get the punchline in first then explain how you got there.

There are some rules to elevator stories. Most of the rules are about not giving The Target the chance to end the conversation. The first, and possibly most important rule is:

Rule 1. Don’t start with a question

The temptation is open with “would you like hear about…..“. Do not do this. Ever, Under any circumstance. Why? Because it gives them the chance to just bluntly say “no” or, more politely, say that they “are too busy just now“.

How they turn you down doesn’t matter, just that you must avoid this at all costs.

Rule 2. Start with your name and something striking about your idea

As another rule of thumb you have about 10 seconds to get a persons attention. Even worse The Target is probably important and busy and not accustomed to being spoken to by people they haven’t been introduced to.

You will only get one chance to engage them, so you need to put a lot of thought and practice into your opening line.

My opening line is “Hi, I’m Bob Windmill and I’m really impressed by your trainee managers that I’m teaching”. I settled on this format after a lot of experimentation but it come down to provoking a person’s natural curiosity.

Having someone tell you about the great time they are having at work is unusual and most people will be intrigued and want to know more.

The perfect outcome of an opening line is that The Target asks about your project but the important point is that it must limit their options for shutting down the conversation.

Rule 3. Have a stock of second lines

Assuming that your carefully crated opening line has achieved its aim and The Target is paying you attention, you then need a really good second line to maintain their interest.

Typically your second line expands on your first. In my example the second line would be “I’m doing the pilot management programme and I’m really pleased by how well your people are doing“.

Rule 4. Third lines explain benefits

What all decision makers and influencers want to know is what is in it for them. While they are likely interested that I am having a good time and that I think their students are talented their funding decision will be based on what cash benefits the course will bring to their organisation.

One of my teaching techniques is to show the students a management technique such as SWOT analysis or Scenario Planning and then get them to apply the techniques to real problems in their business.

Based on this my third line is: “They’ve been working in groups, looking at couple of your problem areas and where you could get some new customers. They’ve come up with some really good ideas that would have cost you a fortune from a consultant“.

The key points here: The students are “working”, not studying, they are both solving problems and identifying how to get more customers, and they are doing work that you normally pay a consultant to do. These things are music to the ears of busy decision makers.

Rule 5. Have your business card ready

Your first three sentences will have taken you up to the first floor. At this point The target may get out of the elevator. While you can’t stop them doing this you can at least make sure that they leave with one of your business cards.

Let’s start from the beginning: you do have a stock of nice, professionally printed business cards that you carry with you at all times, don’t you? If you don’t, stop reading this now and get some sorted out.

I don’t want to hear that professionally printed cards are too expensive and that you can can save money by doing your own on a laser printer or, more horribly, an ink-jet.

The way I look at it is this: you have to decide how you want to be seen by the recipient of your business card.

Do you want to be remembered as the amateur with the flimsy, blurry, scissor-cut specimen or the professional with the clean, crisp, machine cut example on sturdy card?

My cards cost me about 50p each which I regard as one of my most important investments.

Rule 6. Know when to stop

You may be lucky and The Target shows an interest and accepts your business card. The temptation is now to bombard them with lots more information about your wonderful idea.

Don’t do this. Ever.

At this point my strategy is normally to ask them if they’ve heard about the work I’m doing and see where that takes the conversation.

What ever their response it offers you the opportunity to give The Target another headline or two and answer their questions.

However this all you should be doing at this stage. After all they have been generous with their time already and my advice is that you should now let them control the conversation.


I hope that you have enjoyed reading this post. If you have thoughts on what I have written so far please leave a comment.

Also if you have an idea for another business topic let me know and I’ll be delighted to find a space for it.

Thanks again

Bob windmill

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