Make an elevator speech that works

I hold workshops for a lot of fundraisers, sometimes working with thousands a year, exploring the science and secrets of effective donor communications. One of my favourite exercises is the 30-second elevator speech. It’s so revealing, both for me and my willing participants. Here’s how it works.

Written by
Tom Ahern
Added
May 23, 2013

​The premise

You’re standing facing the elevator doors, waiting for the lift to arrive. The doors are mirrored and you can see yourself in the reflection. Then another person appears behind you, an older, well-dressed woman.

The lift arrives. You both get in.

You press the button for your floor and, from common courtesy, ask her what floor she needs. She names her floor. It’s higher in the building. She graciously thanks you.

The doors are mirrored on the inside too and in the reflection you see her glance your way. As it happens, you’re carrying a book bag with your organisation’s name on it (these and T-shirts are the cheapest billboards in the world, by the way).

The stranger turns and says, ‘I notice your bag. I was wondering, what does your organisation do, if I may ask?’

The speech

At this point, I will choose a fundraiser to stand up and give her elevator speech. I set my old, faithful, battery-powered Timex timer for 30 seconds; it’s yellowing white plastic, smudged from my cooking. And I give the fundraiser instructions, just like on a game show: ‘Inside half a minute’, I say, ‘you must explain why your charity matters. Go!’

Why just 30 seconds?

Because an elevator speech happens in a normal building: that’s how the metaphor works; you don’t have all day. You’re not making your speech in a record skyscraper.

Fundraiser one speaks: ‘We provide a place for homeless people to stay. We provide beds and meals for more than a hundred people every night of the year and for many more on the coldest nights.’
Fundraiser two speaks: ‘Our organisation works to make sure that people are literate so that they can read the newspaper and become informed citizens. We present classes to adults in centres throughout the city.’

What’s missing?

Did you notice the omission?

Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the people delivering their elevator speech never mention the donor. The donor plays no role at all in most people’s elevator speech.

In marketing, this has a name: it’s called ‘a missed opportunity’.

If you’re a fan of adjectives, may I expand? This is a huge, easily avoided ‘you call yourself a professional?’ And frankly a ‘disappointing-I-thought-we-were-friends’ missed opportunity.

Let’s pause for a moment to ask a simple question.

Are we in the public relations business, where the primary goal is to build (ie raise to colossal heights) the image and reputation of the organisation, be it nonprofit or for-profit?

Or are we (time to pull out the job description) in the fundraising business, where the primary goal is to maximise donor contributions?

I’m asking honestly. Which side are you on?

If you agree that donor communications are about PR, welcome to the minor league.

If you understand that donor communications – including elevator speeches – are about how wonderful the donor is (as opposed to how wonderful the organisation is), welcome to the major league.

Next time you see that stranger in the elevator, try saying something like this:

‘I see you are carrying a newspaper in your bag. Our organisation works to make sure that people are literate so that they can read the newspaper and become informed citizens like you. But here’s the thing: nothing we do happens without the commitment of our wonderful and selfless donors. They make it all possible. And without them, this good work simply would not happen. Would you be willing to learn more?’

© Tom Ahern, 2011.

About the author: Tom Ahern

Tom Ahern

Tom Ahern is a fundraising, advocacy and communications specialist based in Foster, Rhode Island, USA.

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