This week marks the anniversary of the birth, and death, of a true American original, Major General George Owen Squier (March 21, 1865 – March 24, 1934). Besides his distinguished service record, Squier was a scholar, holding a Ph.D. from John Hopkins and being an elected member of the National Academy of Science. He was also an accomplished inventor, having discovered a way for the telephone to send multiple messages across a single line (multiplexing). However, the general’s most recognized achievement is one designed to not be recognized at all. Whether you’re shopping, having your teeth drilled or riding in an elevator you’ve likely been exposed to (don’t worry, it’s not contagious) Muzak – a term the general coined himself.
Getting to the Next Level
While the elevator ride has become synonymous with Muzak, the item more relevant to myself and other Governance, Risk and Compliance (GRC) professionals is the “elevator pitch.” Resulting from the estimated length of time it takes to get from the lobby to the board room on the top floor, elevator pitches are intended to succinctly summarize the key elements of a proposal, project or product. Of course, they often generate immediate disapproval, dissatisfaction or disinterest if time isn’t invested to ensure the message is compelling and relevant to the listener. Elevator pitches are common in the sales world, but they don’t surface often in project management circles, especially of the GRC variety. Although we may not be trying to break in to a new organization or follow up on an initial sales lead, as the champions of key projects and initiatives we can benefit from being able to convey our efforts to our peers in a succinct and clear manner.
Balancing Conciseness with White Noise
So what goes in and what goes out of an elevator pitch? It’s always a delicate balance between interesting details and broad, high-level summaries. Muzak fades into the background by lacking attention-grabbing elements. If you’re not careful, your project summary will not do proper justice to the value you’re really offering the team. If you provide too much information, your listeners leave feeling like they’ve suffered through a rambling, 20th century work for orchestra and electronic whale sounds (yes, such a work does exist). There are no hard and fast rules for elevator pitches, but the Internet has a broad range of tips and tricks for having an elevator pitch. When I’m asked to quickly summarize my work on GRC projects, I’ve always found success using the following three tips:
- Be Personal, Not Programmed
Avoid sounding like a data sheet. Eyes glaze over when projects, “augment the existing knowledge base to reduce the time to value of managing key corporate initiatives” or when IT systems, “consolidate our benchmark metrics to empower stakeholders to rapidly distribute actionable intelligence.” Humans shouldn’t sound like this. Your elevator pitch is as much about what you’re doing as it is about who you are. Use everyday words like “grow” instead of “augment,” and “help” instead of “empower.” It’s OK to insert a buzzword here and there, but your verbal elevator speech is not being indexed by a search engine; there’s no need to cram in unnecessary keywords.
- Transform, Don’t Techno-Speak
Discussing the administrative features of system X over platform Y won’t engender any passion in your listener. While the merits of your daily, 500,000 record data integration may be the backbone of your implementation, most users won’t understand (or perhaps even care) how things happen – they just just want them to happen. The message you convey about your GRC project needs to be about your end goal and the benefits your project offers the organization. Think and say phrases like, “when we’re finished, we’ll have shrunk the time spent managing our SOX process by 25%,” or “with this project, our key people can see a dashboard of all of their policy exceptions, without having to pick up the phone or hunt through lines of records.” Show how your work is changing the organization for the better.
- Make Them Curious
At end of your pitch, the goal is to leave the listener engaged and intrigued. There’s no need to give a complete review of all actions, changes and activities. Too much information typically leaves the listener speaking a response that amounts to, “that’s nice.” The goal is to connect your efforts with your listener. If people follow up with questions such as “how did you get everyone to work together,” or “what do you think the next area to tackle is,” you’ve done your job. You might even get a, “wow, would you have time later this week to talk about this project in more detail.” In all of these scenarios, the person is left curious and looking for more details; you’ve been given the go ahead to provide the additional insights you likely left out of your elevator pitch.
Leaving Your Mark
Like playing an instrument, your elevator pitch gets better with deliberate practice. Don’t let your mirror be your only performance venue. Borrow 45 seconds from your neighbor, your brother-in-law or your barista and see what they think. The less the person knows about the industry, the better. Even if you never have an opportunity to give your GRC elevator pitch, it’s reassuring to know that it’s there in the background – available to be called upon when needed. Time invested in crystallizing what it is that you do lets you understand the characteristics that make you and your work essential to the organization.
The final note of Muzak was played earlier in 2013, as the company that acquired Muzak out of its 2009 bankruptcy ultimately decided to discontinue the brand name. While the company was not able to persevere, Muzak did leave a legacy that people instantly recognize. Work to make sure the impression you give is one that accurately represents your abilities and skills.
–Jonathan Kitchin, OrangePoint
“Muzak to My Ears: History of Elevator Music.” History Confidential. History Confidential, 27 Oct. 2010. Web. 19 Mar. 2013.
“Squier Is Unsung Hero of Electronic Age.” Tri-City Times Online. Tri-City Times, 24 Mar. 2010. Web. 18 Mar. 2013.