Elevator Pitches Equal Panic Attack

How to answer the question, “What do you do?”

I was tired of having a panic attack every time someone asked me, “What do you do?” I hated this question with such a passion, even though it’s my firm’s responsibility to answer it for others. 

Then I wrote about how hearing the best elevator pitch of my life forced us to come up with a better answer for Parisleaf. Based on the volume of responses, I realized that I’m clearly not alone. 

That article had the highest response rate to anything we’ve ever written. 

People came out of the woodwork to ask, “What was it?”, “Who was it?” or, more often than not, “You’ve heard my elevator pitch. It sure wasn’t me!” Funnily enough, the guy who inspired the article emailed me. He was surprised when I admitted that it was his elevator pitch that made me raise my game. 

Over the weeks that followed, I heard from many people who dread being asked this question and wanted advice on how to come up with a better answer. These conversations made me reflect on the panic attack that first defined my relationship with elevator pitches and put me on a journey to find a better answer. 

Reliving my negative experience 

It was almost a decade ago, back when Parisleaf was just getting started. I was making a delivery to one of the biggest law firms in our city. I walked into one of the offices upstairs to drop off some print work. To my surprise, the Managing Partner was standing right there. 

He’s well-known in our community and it was a big moment to meet him in person. A bit star-struck, I introduced myself and shook his hand. 

Wanting to help me out and encourage others in the office to refer us, he walked over to the doorway and addressed their entire office full of lawyers. 

“Listen up. Chad here is going to tell you about his new business.” 

The room went silent. Everyone turned and waited expectantly. At that moment, I realized I didn’t know what to say. 

I completely froze. 

I knew that this moment was so much more important than just describing our services. If I told them what we did, it would sound utterly generic and they’d never remember the name of our firm. 

Instead of putting Parisleaf in the heads of all these high-powered attorneys, I made light of the request and gave them a smile and a self-conscious wave before making my excuses and heading to my car to have a meltdown. 

This traumatic experience led to years of fumbling through introductions.

Whenever I had to stand up to introduce myself and what we do at Parisleaf, I didn’t have a consistent answer. I would basically list our services, sit down and wait for the embarrassment to pass. 

Then I heard eight words that burned in my brain

I was at a conference for agency owners. I knew before I arrived that I’d have to give one of my awkward elevator pitches. By this stage, I was past the feeling of panic and was just aimlessly trying to improve. 

I was no longer failing the test, but I wasn’t acing it either. 

There were 40 of us in the room. We took turns standing up and describing our service offering in the most bland and generic words. Some were clearly likable people and even a bit funny, but none were actually memorable.

Before we even relaxed back in our chairs, our words (and our businesses) were forgotten. 

Then the owner of a digital agency stood up and said: 

“We build beautiful technology for clients we love.”

It was that simple. In one sentence he combined three essential elements. 

I didn’t even need to write it down. I just kept turning over and over in my mind and figuring out what made it work. I wanted to create a template that I could use to come up with a version like this for Parisleaf. 

This task was stuck on my to-do list for another two years until we made the decision to rebrand our branding agency (again) (in the middle of a pandemic) (perfect timing – nailed it). If you’re curious about how a branding agency turns the scalpel on themselves, you can read all about it here

About halfway through creating our Verbal Identity, we reached the inevitable moment of dread. We needed a spoken and a written answer to the question I’ve spent my whole career avoiding. 

We couldn’t escape it any longer – none of us managed to put our finger on it during our workshops. Unlike our values or our Purpose, we didn’t have a bulletproof workshop exercise that was guaranteed to help us nail this statement (until now). 

We all agreed we would “know it when we saw it” but we didn’t have a clue how to find the exact right words and put them in the right order.

The formula we used for Parisleaf’s elevator pitch

It took us several attempts to even come close. It was literally one of the last statements in our Verbal Identity that clicked into place. We had a couple of great options, but they were still missing the mark. 

The structure that worked best for us was similar to the other agency’s elevator pitch that inspired this process. It was a different message (obviously) but there was an overlap. 

I then remembered something Picasso once said: “Great artists steal.” As long as we weren’t plagiarising, competing with, or ripping off someone else’s work entirely, we decided to take inspiration from them and be open and grateful about the source. Thanks, Hans & culturefoundry.com!

Before the branding process, our elevator pitch was: 

Parisleaf is a brand strategy and design company. We create verbal and visual identities and brand experiences on screens, in print, and in the round. Our work drives business by drawing the people you want to reach.

The original didn’t work because it’s too long for anyone to remember without pulling out flashcards or rehearsing in front of the mirror. It’s also hard to say out loud while keeping a straight face. Besides, we knew in our hearts that it didn’t hold a candle to some of the statements we’ve written for our clients. 

Our new elevator pitch is:

We’re a brand and digital consultancy that connects Purpose and Profit for brands we love.

We knew that it worked on paper. It worked so well on paper. 

The first time I tested it in the real world and was brave enough to say it out loud, I was nervous. Would I remember it? Would others remember it? Would it flop? 

I’m pleased to say – these words have transformed how Ali and I speak about our firm. It kicks in like a reflex whenever someone asks us what we do and it serves as a springboard into a deeper conversation. We say it with great pride. 

Right now, we’re busy developing this formula into a free DIY worksheet that you can use to explore different structures and write your own version. 

Sign up here to receive the free worksheet as soon as it’s out. In the meantime: practice, test new things out, keep trying, you will nail it. Eventually.  

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