What Do You Do?

The Elevator Speech is Not a Speech (or a Pitch, or a Statement)

“I help businesses answer that question.”

This is sometimes my response to, “What do you do?”

Not always, actually, but this response works when:

  • the person has asked with more-than-polite interest and might humor me
  • I’m also in the mood for a conversation
  • I sense the person won’t like or grok the earnest, “LinkedIn bio” answer

What do you do?

I help businesses answer that question

This might provokes a little mirth, followed by a follow-up question:

haha, ok but no, really, what do you do?

or better yet:

ok, and how do you do that?

From which point the conversation can proceed in many different ways.

One takeaway is that “elevator speech” is a misnomer. It should not be a speech, a pitch, or a statement. Or a blurb resembling any of these. Even when a potential investor or client directly requests a short pitch – don’t do it. You’re not a performing monkey. Instead, throw out a hook that kickstarts a back-and-forth exchange. This works both in copy and in conversation. 

Once the hook works..

How can you direct elevator exchange conversations so they benefit both sides?

If you sense interest, guide them towards figuring out what you do for themselves, with your help. Let them make their own definition. Analogies work really well here.

What do you?

Have you heard of Chuck E Cheese?


I own a place that’s like Chuck E Cheese but it’s not for kids – we serve alcohol and we don’t have clowns and balloons. It’s called Big Barrel.

Hah, got it! So like, Chuck E Cheese for adults?

Ok, I cheated a little with that example. Consumer brands are always easier to explain. Even if no one’s ever heard of them.

But what if you’re a software or consulting business that does something complex and B2B-ish? How do you elevator-exchange that?

What do you do?

Well, you know those crazy wall diagrams with lots of strings, and photos, and stuff – like on detective shows?

Yeah, ok…

Well, I make diagrams like that for private equity firms. I’m a data scientist, I make sense of business metrics

Ahh, so you’re like a business-data detective? 

That’s not a bad outcome for a 30-second elevator exchange. The tagline convention of “_____ detective” is hoaky through overuse, so it won’t do as a slogan – but in conversation, it’s a great way to explain what this person does.

Note that the entire exchange passes Jonathan Stark’s Soggy test; it is specific. It comprises what he’d would call a Laser-Focused Positioning Statement.

I am a data scientist who helps private equity firms to make sense of business metrics. Unlike my competitors, I have an unusual detective-murder-board approach to reporting.

The problem with LFPS is nobody talks like that; it’s a statement that tries too hard to be accurate and complete. Thus, it might not lead anywhere conversationally. Whereas your conversational exchange is more likely to invoke a follow-up question: 

  • OK, so what business metrics to PE firms need to track?
  • Are you hands-on with the data itself, where you can actually clean and transform data?
  • Do your reports actually look like a crazy detective’s murder investigation diagram?

And so on. To get a quality question like one of these, leave something unanswered. Be specific without falling into the mental trap of “accuracy” or “completeness”. Don’t be too on the nose; actually – say as little as possible. The goal is general understanding and curiosity – forget accuracy.

Feel free to try it on me, what do you do?