Standing Beside Alaska's Non-Profits

The Pre-elevator Speech – Keep it Shorter and Sweeter

Short, simple and articulate expressions best tell the story of your organization and the work you do to accomplish your mission. In marketing, this communication is often referred to as an “elevator speech” – or the ability to adequately get your message across in the time it takes to ride three stories in an elevator.

I am re-cycling one of the first articles I ever wrote for this newsletter and refreshing it with a new perspective I recently gained. The article was Keep it Short and Sweet, and it received a significant, unsolicited positive response. It seemed to have struck a nerve, so here is an excerpt from the original.

The “top ten” rules for effective communication passed on to me from my mentor 30 years ago are:

  1. Deliver the message in three-to-five minutes, then be quiet – this is what is now known as the “elevator speech.”
  2. Once the message is delivered, wait for questions. If there are no questions, assume the message has been heard or no further information is required.
  3. If there is a question, then respond briefly and see if the response answered the question.
  4. Always remember that most times no one wants to know as much about your issue as you know and want to tell them.
  5. People prefer hearing stories that make the message real. They glaze over with statistics.
  6. People respond better to simple, clear language with little or no jargon.
  7. People prefer that you listen to them much more than they want to listen to you. So when you speak – pause and watch for signals that the other person is interested. Ask that person a question to start a conversation. If it appears they are losing interest, then be quiet.
  8. It’s best not to assume another’s politics or values.
  9. If they share their values with you, it does not necessarily mean they want you to share your values or politics with them.
  10. People that don’t speak are never heard. Those who speak too much are rarely heard.

As I reflect on this list, I am amazed at how my mentor, who while successful as a nonprofit leader and not as a communications specialist, was so right. We offer courses on effective communications at Foraker. I am not one of the instructors. However, I recently observed a board working on how to answer “who they were,” and found their deliberations meaningful for this discussion.

We asked the board member to reflect on an organization he thought was well branded and he quickly answered: Bean’s Café. We asked: “What does Bean’s Café do?” Almost in a second, everyone responded: “feed people,” “feed the homeless” or something similar. We then asked the group to be just as concise and answer the same question for their organization. This was hard, but it got them on the right track, and they were eventually able to achieve consensus with a response that was as clear and concise as the one for Bean’s Café.

Next we asked: “How does Bean’s do that?” In other words, what core services did they offer? The group responded: “run a soup kitchen.” They didn’t know of the other core services at Bean’s like referral, Kid’s Café, etc. That didn’t matter, though, because our next question focused back on their organization? We asked that they develop a list of up to four specific ways they accomplished their mission. They were successful at identifying two primary services. They then completed this exercise by developing a more detailed summary that described their organization. This, as it turns out, became their elevator speech. So if the last question got them to their elevator speech, what were the answers for their first two questions? Maybe we could call them the “before-the-elevator-opens speech.” This group’s exercise closely follows the ten rules developed by my mentor. Let me explain how.

Step One. If someone asks, answer the question: “What do we do?” Answer in one-to-four words. The Bean’s example is “feed the homeless.” Try not to answer in a sentence, or worse a paragraph. In providing such a short, succinct response – even shorter than my mentor suggested – you have answered a question but not given too much information. (Rules 1-2)

Step Two. If they ask for more information, answer the question: “How do we do that?” Provide a short list of two-to-four services, like “we serve them lunch and dinner, and we also provide support services like counseling, medical care and referral to agencies.” You have now provided the next most important descriptors, but still have not used even half a minute of their time. (Rules 3-4)

Step Three. If the person is truly interested after you answer the “before-the-elevator-opens speech,” now you’re ready to give your full elevator speech. By now, you probably have generated enough interest to provide a few more minutes of compelling information on your organization – with stories that make it real. (Rules 5-6)

For The Foraker Group, this is how the board and staff could respond to these questions.

First question: “What does Foraker do?”
First answer: “We support nonprofits.”

Second question: “How do you do that?”
Second answer: “We provide educational opportunities for boards and staff; we have backroom shared services; we provide organizational consulting; and we are the state nonprofit association.”

Third question: “That’s interesting, how do you do that? Tell me more.”
Third answer: “We have over 30 classes for board members – most take about two hours – and those classes cover almost every aspect of a board member’s role. We also have many classes specifically for staff, including a Certificate in Nonprofit Management through UAF and a degree through APU. Our shared services include finance, human resources, project development, web design – and we are developing an association health insurance plan for Alaska’s nonprofits. We provide high-end professional resources for smaller organizations that can’t afford full-time staff for those functions. Our organizational consulting ranges from board and staff retreats, to meeting facilitations, strategic planning and business planning. We also provide fundraising audits and organizational assessments. After we were formed, the Alaska Nonprofit Association transferred its assets and mission to Foraker. Since then, we have been working to increase our role as the “Voice of the Sector.” We provide advocacy support to our members and lead efforts that have a broad impact on the sector – like the legislation to implement Pick.Click.Give.”

Effective communication requires two skills. The first is to answer people’s questions with as few words as possible. That skill can only be developed through practice. Most people find that while they may be good at either written or oral communication, most need practice to be good at both. The tools to use are the same as developing any presentation. Start with the most important points you want people to remember, then add a bit more information that best supports those points. Rules 1-7 can help you become succinct. Have someone either listen to your oral presentation or read your written communication and see if you were successful.

The second skill is observation. Pay attention to your audience. We all have experienced pontificators who made their point, but refused to shut up. Let’s all work on that skill.