#5: The New Elevator Pitch with Chris Westfall

This episode features my fellow Houstonian Chris Westfall. Chris is a keynote speaker, best-selling author, business coach, and U.S. National Elevator Pitch Champion. In this interview, Chris shares tips for making a NEW elevator pitch and dismantles some longstanding myths about how to sell.

Video of Scott's Interview with Chris Westfall

Podcast Audio of Scott's Interview with Chris Westfall

Transcript of Scott's Interview with Chris Westfall

The best pitch isn't really a pitch at all.

Scott: Chris, thank you so much for joining me on To Market. You are guest number five and I'm so thrilled to have you. We share a Texas A&M connection, we share a Houston, Texas connection and you have a background that I think is going to be so valuable for my students or people that I'm connected with on LinkedIn and I just want to thank you for being here.

Chris: Well thank you Scott, thanks for having me.

Scott: And you have a really interesting background. You might have the most interesting LinkedIn profile that that I've ever gone through and I think one thing on your profile really stood out to me in terms of how it might be able to impact my listeners and even me personally. So I noticed that you're the US National Elevator Pitch Champion and this is something that, you know, going through an MBA program even going through an undergraduate program, we're constantly told you have to have an elevator pitch. You need a one-minute pitch, you need a five-minute pitch, you need a 10-minute pitch. So we all know that we need a good elevator pitch but we don't really know how to put one together, so could you kind of dig into some of the secrets of strong pitching?

Chris: Absolutely, yeah, everybody says you've got to have an elevator pitch and then you say well how exactly do I do that and they’re like, I don't know, or if they say that they do know they try to give you a strategy that, you know, feels like it's right out of the Xerox sales training from 1977, if you know what I'm talking about and I know you do.

The thing that stands out for me is that the best pitch isn't really a pitch at all, it's a conversation and the way that I define the elevator pitch, well I call it the new elevator pitch is that it's a persuasive introduction to a person or a product or an idea that make someone say in some form or fashion these three words, “tell me more.” Because the “tell me more” says you've created a conversation, you've created a dialogue versus coming in and, you know, try to speechify someone or  thinking that there's some sort of magic words or magic formula to your story that that's going to create a reaction. The reaction that you want is let's have a conversation, let's talk more, what you've had, what you said is interesting and intriguing to me because that's really the purpose. The elevator pitch has to be a conversation if you want to use it for what it's intended to do which is create connection.

Scott: Right, so it's not to use the term elevator pitch literally, it's not you getting on the elevator talking about yourself for the entire journey and then exiting the elevator hoping that you left a good impression.

Chris: That's exactly right and the elevator pitch it's kind of an urban legend, I mean it, you probably know this but it comes from the studio days of Hollywood and the idea behind it was that an aspiring screenwriter would see a producer getting ready to get into an elevator and would get into the elevator with him and proceed to pitch a screenplay idea and the legend continues, the myth continues, that he would be able to pitch and sell his business idea before the elevator reached the top floor.

So from this urban legend we have this idea of the elevator pitch and in a modern context, the way I see it, the elevator platform has been replaced with the social platform. You have to be able to tell your story, whether you tweet it or tell it, in a way that's compelling and that’s authentic and that's not some artificial elevator ride or some, you know, 15-second slogan or something like that. That's not that's not the gig. It's about creating that dialogue but you know the question is how do you start it, what is your story and when you understand how to do that you can persuade in sales, in your career, in your relationships. There's really no limit to where you can use an effective elevator pitch because it's really just a way to start a conversation.

Scott: Right, so this is unconventional, what you're telling us in terms of how, because we think of “okay I'm going to create my elevator pitch and I'm going to memorize it” and then it kind of feels like at the end of your elevator pitch there's this awkward moment when you're just waiting for a reaction, but are you suggesting that maybe instead of memorizing an elevator pitch it's more about kind of memorizing or knowing the pieces of your story that you should lead the conversation with?

Chris: This is going to sound strange Scott but it's really a conversation about engineering and that may sound very odd in the context of marketing, personal branding, communication, connection but this is the way that I look at it. It's about engineering a conversation which means you understand the component parts and how to put them together to create what it is that you want, which what you want is not, in fact it is never, a memorized speech because if you give the same story to a prospective employer that you would give to a prospective client you're making a mistake. You see the conversation, if I'm talking to you the same way that I talked to my wife first of all it's just it doesn't fit for this, it doesn't fit for the conversation, right? So, there has to be an understanding that the strongest conversation and this is going to sound counterintuitive but it's not about your experience, it's not about your accomplishments, it's about your listener. It's about what your listener is thinking and so that means that when that part of the conversation changes because there's always two parts of the conversation, there's the person speaking and the person listening so when the person listening when that changes the conversation changes as well and tailoring your conversation to the person that's right in front of you is really the secret of the new elevator pitch. So, it's never a memorized speech but it is a recipe, an engineering diagram if you will, so that you can create the conversation that that you want to have by understanding what's going to be most compelling for the person right in front of you.

Scott: Okay and now what you're saying speaks to me as a marketer because you're saying you need to know your audience, right, so if it's an employer you need to know that company and know that person that you're going to be speaking to very well. If it's your wife or your child, you know, you have to know kind of how you make that approach what information they already know about you and take that into account. If it's someone you're interviewing for a podcast, right, you do as much background information as you possibly can in the time that you have so that you can have that that strong dialogue. And then when you said to make it about them I started to, I teach a personal selling course, so I'm thinking about we talked about selling using features, advantages, and benefits and starting with benefits. So, you mentioned make it about them and if you start with, you know, “here” and you don't have to say it directly but basically the idea is “these are the aspects of my experience or my personal story that are going to provide some benefit to you” so is that part of the engineering framework? You figure out where you add benefit and lead with that, how does, can you tell us a little bit more about what that blueprint might look like?

Chris: Sure. Well, when I look at it benefits and going back to the two people in a conversation there's only one who can really decide what a benefit is and if you think it's so, it's the person talking, it's the person selling, I I don't see it that way. I would respectfully disagree with that. Why? Because until someone else acknowledges, until someone else, until your prospective client says, “tell me more,” I mean they're the ones who decide if it's a benefit or not. So here's what here's what I like to suggest is that when you're starting the conversation it's easy to come into it and think “oh I need to I need to talk about myself, I need to focus on my product, I need to focus on my features, I need to focus on my advantages.” Here's what I suggest, focus on the most important person you can, which by the way that's not you, it's not your background, it's the person right in front of you, why? Because in the most persuasive conversation your context actually trumps your content and that context has to be, from a marketing standpoint, it is its know your audience it's its segmentation, but it's also connection on a very basic and human level. It's being able to say, “I see you. I see your puts and takes,” and do that not in a way that's invasive or that's like, you know, I can read your mind or something like that but it's saying you know “this is this is what things look like to both of us” and by using a tool that I call “you language” you incorporate and acknowledge the expertise of your listener and get them to acknowledge what you see for them, for their business, for the people that they serve and now all of a sudden this is a conversation that's much more powerful, why? Because you're talking about what they are thinking about, not what you've done, not what happened to you in 2006, not the features and benefits of your product, not the year that your company was started, none of that. Start the conversation with what your listener is thinking. That's where the most powerful conversation begins and, by the way, if it doesn't then we should talk about how to be charismatic, kick the door down, and by sheer force of will, forcing people into your point of view which to me that doesn't work either. So, we have to focus on what our listener’s thinking, in my opinion, that's the way I see it.

Scott: Okay, you've already changed my perspective on what an elevator pitch is all about so I'm excited about this podcast and how to approach it as a marketer. It sounds a lot like this is kind of analogous to consultative selling where you go in with curiosity. So really you're trying to ask questions and uncover, you know, “what are the what are the problems that you're facing” and then you kind of try to dig beneath the surface and figure out what are the big problems that this person is facing so if it's an interviewer in a job, for example, maybe it's applicable in that you're really trying to be curious and figure out why do they need to fill this job opening. What problem are they trying to solve here? And then you start maybe speaking to that, does that ring true for you? Am I on the right track?

Chris: It does. One of the books that I published is called the “Millennial CEO” and the author of this book is a guy named Daniel Newman and he talks about how if you come into the conversation with nothing but questions, you haven't done enough homework to earn the right to have the conversation, right? If you come in and, you know, you do the kind of this Sales 101, you know, tell me what keeps you up at night, you know, what are, where’s your pain? I mean for the clients that I deal with, you know, I'm coaching folks onto Shark Tank and Dragons Den in Canada and working with people trying to try to raise millions of dollars in capital and move their businesses forward. I mean if you walk in and to someone in an executive level and you say what's your pain point, they're going to say “well, my diamond shoes are too tight and I don't know where to park my jet,” you know? And so it's like without that… here's the thing, common ground to create uncommon results. If you don't have that, and you were talking about it, if you haven't done that research, if you haven't checked out LinkedIn, if you don't know the puts and takes for their company, how can you really offer something of value? And if you think you can come in with questions, features, and benefits and just probe, you know, it's like you're trying to “is it this? is it this? is it this?” Professional sellers in the advanced class set the stage for the conversation that they want to have that he who controls or she who controls the conversation controls the relationship and drives it towards the results that you're looking for, not in a way that is manipulative or really controlling but in a way that says “I have a goal for this conversation” and even more importantly, “I have a goal for you” and it's counterintuitive because we think oh well what we need to do is present our argument, argument, argument, argument, make our point. That model in a new elevator page is flipped. What's your point? What is that, what is the value that you can create phrased in terms of your listener? And I've got several strategies that students, professionals can put into place to change the conversation and let people know where your focus is that puts this “you language” into powerful use.

Scott: So okay, I think we're getting closer so you don't go in with a pitch, a memorized pitch, you don't go in just talking about yourself but also you don't go in with, like you said, kind of Sales 101, just asking questions, you know, “what keeps you up at night, what are your pain points?” Instead, you're trying to be cognizant of the context, of the common ground that you share with the person on the other or the people on the other side of the table, and then maybe it just involves more of that back and forth. So you say, you kind of state some goals you have for the conversation and then maybe you ask them about their goals or if this kind of aligns with what they're looking to get out of the conversation? So, it's really more about making statements but then not just pitching or giving some kind of memorized conver… you know, your part of the conversation, but constantly kind of pinging them to see if you're on the right track or if they have any input that might take you in a different direction?

Chris: Yeah-yeah, exactly Scott and really what I'm advocating is saying you set the track. So here are some examples that I think viewers and listeners can take away that are concrete and tactical that they can apply right now to change the conversation. Here's what I advocate, when you go into the conversation focus on what your listener is thinking and start there and there are four framers that I use to help introduce a conversation or pitch, and again this is just this is how it translates for me, this is the work that I've done with thousands of executives, thousands of students all across North America.

Anyway, here's where it starts. What would happen if you started the conversation with this prompt. “You know how dot-dot-dot?” So, what I'm suggesting is you say “you know how” and then you fill in the blank with something that is going to be pertinent, germane, and compelling to the person that you're talking to, for example, if you're talking to an investor about an app that helps people with handling their scheduling, for example, a phone app that helps to coordinate across different calendars and I'm just I'm just making this up and I'm just kind of riffing here, but you come into the conversation with something like this. Something that says “you know how when it comes to managing your calendar there's no greater responsibility and no greater hassle than having to manage your calendar across multiple platforms?” And this is something that, it creates the head nod that, you know, you and I are both going “yeah, that's right, I mean, managing my calendar is a bit of a hassle.”

It's something that I like to say, all God's children identify it as a challenge, and you're setting the stage for a problem that is that is clear. I mean, instead of walking in and going “let's talk about benefits” the conversation starts with what you already know about a problem that you are already having and I'm speaking about it broadly and generally enough that almost anybody would say “yeah I get that” and from there once you establish that what would I call and again, I talked about in my books and that sort of thing, it's something that I call a high concept. It's a universal theme or idea that anybody can say yes to. You follow that up by something counterintuitive so you see it's kind of a different approach but it's saying this is a problem do you know how this is a challenge? Well, here's what might surprise you to find out about how simple it might be to solve this problem. That's an intriguing “tell me more,” that's what makes people do what Sheryl Sandberg calls the “lean in factor.” It makes them lean in and say “wow tell me about, I didn't see that coming” and you don't want to, you know, you don't want to be gimmicky or hokey about it but it's about that twist that creates that creates the hook, that creates the engagement, that creates that “tell me more.”

Scott: Awesome, and you'll learn right away if you're way off too, right, because if they have an objection for you they're going to say right away “oh, I already use Calendly and that takes care of all this.”

Chris: Right-right and you know for sales professionals some look at that and go “oh my God, that's, oh no I didn't I didn't guess right.” Guess what, it's a dialogue, it's a conversation, it's not a pitch, it's and when you get you get that feedback, it's a gift because it tells you how to direct the conversation and you if you're locked into, “well, I've got to keep going with the next three minutes that I've memorized,” stop, stop, shift, change, adapt, focus on your audience, always focused on your audience because context conquers content. And the context that matters most is how is your customer doing, that's the focus that can really make a difference.

Scott: Okay good, so if your approach to pitching is that this is something that you can deliver to a blank wall you're doing it wrong. It's not it's not necessarily something you should be able to rehearse in front of a mirror all the way, right?

Chris: But at the same time, it is something that you have to practice to develop those skills so that you, yeah this is, if you're doing it to a blank wall that's called memorizing a monologue and that's what actors do and sometimes we'll see sales people that deliver memorize monologues and then they stop it when they're finished and they wait for applause at the end. Wrong business model, it's not a conversation. If it’s not a conversation then you're making a mistake and isn’t, when you get right down to it, isn't that what you want? Don't you want that dialog, don't you want somebody to tell you what's missing so you can fill in the blanks? I mean, how can you how can you meet needs and fulfill them if you don't know specifically and personally what those needs are. I mean, when you think about, I mean look this is the thing that shows up for me, Scott. We got that you got the four Ps of marketing we all know about that but the fifth P is personalization and that's the one that the new elevator pitch always focuses on. It's about personalizing the story, a conversation, to be of utmost service for the person you're speaking to and by the way that could be someone you're speaking to in a conversation dialogue like we're having or it could be something that you're you know it could be somebody that's hitting you on Instagram, it could be something on a blog post, it could be your company's marketing and branding materials. I mean, it really depends. The medium is not what we're talking about here. It's about the structure and the engineering of that conversation that can make it more powerful.

Scott: That's so cool. The wheels are turning in my in my brain here trying to think about how I would do this because elevator pitch is something… I'm introverted naturally and it's something I always struggled with trying to memorize an elevator pitch and you know you earned your MBA at TCU, so is that correct?

Chris: That is.

Scott: So that is you know about these conferences where MBA students go looking for work and you kind of you stand in front of Deloitte and you deliver this pitch and it's very impersonal and they see a hundred of these every day right during the conference room or maybe even more than a hundred. So what you're saying here I think can even be applicable in that environment and I'm trying to think about how I start an interview if someone's interviewing me or how I start a class when I'm introducing myself to the class and you've given me a lot to think about. You know, this simple, you know, what did you call it, the lead-in or the “you know how?”

Chris: I call it a high concept. It's a high concept it's something that anybody sees and can say yes to and it's right based on yeah, go ahead Scott sorry.

Scott: So no, I love this and I'm thinking of when I talk about myself, I'm trying to kind of differentiate what I do from other professors so what I might say is “you know how most professors, they're really great at theory and they've published all these papers about marketing theory but they don't really know how to apply that in a real business setting?” right, and then I think you would get a big nod from a lot of students, a big nod from administrators and from other professors. Or if I'm if I'm zeroing in on teaching these online courses or courses where we teach part of the time online and part of the time face-to-face maybe it's… you know how a lot of professors are really great in front of the class but then their online videos are so boring and it's just a really dry lecture and I do think you would get you'd get a lot of nods.

So, I can already see and that's just me thinking about this for you know 30 seconds or one minute how much more powerful that is than what I would typically do to say, “I'm a marketing professor. I earned my PhD at Texas A&M; I worked as a software engineer for a number of years,” and then already I think you're losing people right, they’re like, “okay, this… we already knew you were a marketing professor we're in your class right?” or “we read your CV” so instead I'm saying “you know how” and then there's this this common problem that I'm very aware of and I know that I'm most likely going to get agreement on to kind of set a really nice foundation for a conversation so I don't know if I did that well but I wanted to kind of give it a shot.

Chris: I think it's excellent and I think you're headed in the right direction. Absolutely. The thing that's so powerful about when you use a simple phrase like “you know how” especially coming from you, because you know you're such a bright guy with the PhD and that sort of thing, but when you say “you know how” what you're doing is you're connecting to your audience, you're saying you have an expertise too and you know for people like you and me that are up there and trying to instruct and guide and coach as best we can, acknowledging expertise is an important part of a conversation. Because, you know, like I have I have a daughter who’s 14 and she was studying American Sign Language. Now I don't know anything about American, I mean I know a few letters and stuff like that but I don't know anything about American Sign Language, but because she had done some studying and it didn't take much, she was in my eyes an expert. In other words, I had to acknowledge her expertise and it wasn't like I was forced to but it was just it was just out of respect and that respect particularly coming from highly intelligent people like yourself, Scott, it can really make a difference in the room because we're gonna, what it says is “let's start with what we all know to be true” and a lot of salespeople they go you know I want to be authentic, I want it, you know, they don't want to be pushy, they don’t want to be fake, they don't want to. They want to come from a place of authenticity. Well, when you authentically say what you see and the truth is you see it that others will see as well, that's the key and it's not about opening statements that are if-then, you know, like “do you have kids?” Well, if I don't have kids I'm out, I'm not going to listen to whatever you have to say next. Sorry. So why do that to yourself? I mean if sales is about a series of yeses, which in my opinion, sales is about a series of yeses, why not start with a yes? Why not start with acknowledging expertise versus coming in and saying let me tell you where you don't know about your business. Whoa stop, stop, stop, stop. Let me bombard you with features and benefits that you've never thought of before. Look, information is everywhere, I just Googled those features and benefits now what can you say that brings those features and benefits to life? Answer: connection, truth, authenticity, saying what you see in a way that's universal is the strongest way to start the conversation because it focuses on your listener.

Scott: Yes, I love it and it's really already making me rethink about my approach in the classroom and in in other settings. I always start my class by getting the students to tell me their goals for the class and then I put them on the board and I take a picture and then we revisit them later in the semester. But now I'm trying to think about maybe a better way to introduce that exercise by saying “you know how most professors when you start a class, they'll introduce themselves by kind of running through their CV and telling you about their credentials, I want you to know that this class is about you, so we're going to start by taking your goals putting them on the board, and then talking about how this class is going to help you move toward those goals.” Alright, so it's just kind of a different way of maybe looking at that activity. I’ll have to think about it in more depth but I'm excited. Just thinking about it seems like maybe a better way forward.

Chris: It's disarming, it's unexpected, and it's potent because it puts your attention and everyone's attention on what really matters which is the difference you're going to make in your case for your students, but for folks who are in sales roles and aspiring sales professionals the difference you're going to make for your client is much more important than anything you've accomplished in the past, and I promise you that no matter how much you've achieved academically, professionally, no matter what your title might be or what you'd like it to be, none of that stuff matters until you create that connection with what matters most and that's always how is your customer doing, what is your customer thinking, what can you do to be of service is always more powerful than your CV.

Scott: Yes, brilliant! Some of it even seems obvious. A lot of what you said is not obvious but the idea that this conversation, you're trying to ultimately get something positive, maybe that sounds too manipulative, but out of the other person that you're talking to. In a job interview you want them to offer you the job, right? But it doesn't make sense for you to frame everything around you. Obviously you have to throughout the conversation explain to them what makes you different and why they should hire you but really you need to approach it by talking about them because, you know, what do people love more than talking about themselves, almost nothing right? So maybe it's just a different mindset. It's not “I need to use this one hour to tell them as much about me as I possibly can,” it's really about telling them about the parts of you that they can relate to and that can help their organization, business, help them as a student and things like that. So this is, you've given me a lot of interesting information that I need to mull over because you've already kind of changed the way that I think about these approaches and I teach a lot of selling courses so this is this has been fantastic so far. Can you tell us a little more about the books that you've written, where we can find more information, and then maybe a little bit about what you do as a coach?

Chris: Sure, absolutely. First of all, and I have props, this is the international bestseller this is The New Elevator Pitch and this is the book that's made such a difference and help my clients to land on television shows like Shark Tank, Dragons Den in Canada and even Shark Tank Australia. This book was the centerpiece of the work that I did with the team of engineers that won the Rice Business Plan Competition and has formed the foundation of what we're talking about here today. I'm also a publisher. I've published a number different books, this is one of them this is “Success With Less.” This is Karen Mangia. Obviously this is not me, I didn't write it, but I helped her to publish the book. She's an executive at Salesforce and it's a fascinating little book, so I have a small publishing company and my next book is coming out, I don't have it because I don't have a copy of it yet but it's called Leadership Language and this is a book about cross generational strategies for changing the conversation.

So, it's targeted at leaders and aspirational leaders who have ideas that aren't being heard, you know leadership really starts with your story, your ability to be compelling and whether you aspire to be a Sales Leader or executive or an entrepreneur, whatever the case may be, you’ve got to understand the storytelling strategies that we're talking about here, so it's an extension of The New Elevator Pitch, an extension of the conversation that we're talking about here today.

The other resource that is available and I want to share this with your viewers and listeners and students is my YouTube channel. I've got I think about 1.6 million video views and close to 3500 subscribers as we record this right now. It's YouTube-dot-com forward-slash Westfallonline and there are over 200 videos that are a resource on how to how to speak in public confidently, how to communicate your story, how to be more persuasive, and an elaboration on these ideas so if that's a value to you, check it out. Check out my YouTube channel and subscribe, so those are those are some of the resources that are available, also my website www.westfallonline.com

Scott: That's awesome and I'll be sure to link to all this stuff in the show notes, so that it's easy for people to get to. My audience is currently small but growing and hopefully continuing to talk to great guests like you is just going to help that growth. Your YouTube channel’s fantastic. Your books I have not read them yet, but I'm certainly going to read The New Elevator Pitch.

Chris: Well I'm, give me your address and we're done, I'm sending this to you, I'm going to sign it and send it to you, take a look at it.

Scott: But I can already tell this is not going to be a one-off interview, I think that when your new book comes out you need to come back on the show and I'll talk to you again about leadership because I teach leadership and, of course, we teach leadership in our MBA program, I've used the strength based leadership kind of framework from Tom Rath which I enjoy, but I do think we have a lot more to talk about in terms of personal branding, about leadership and probably sales and a number of other topics, so I hope that that you're willing to come back and talk to us a little bit later.

Chris: Well, absolutely Scott it's been a pleasure. I appreciate you given me the opportunity to share some of these ideas and as always, I look forward to the next conversation.

Scott: Thanks so much, oh and are there any social networks where people can follow you on Twitter or LinkedIn or anything like that?

Chris: Absolutely, you can find me all over the place, you can find me on Twitter, you can find me on Instagram, it's always Westfallonline, that's my handle and my last name it's like the direction and the season, Westfallonline and that's where you can find me. Find me there on LinkedIn as well, so that's where you can connect and I'm always glad to connect with folks on any social media platform, you can even find me on Facebook if that's your thing at the Real Chris Westfall, that's where you can find me there.

Scott: Good-good, you don't want to follow the imposters.

Chris: That's right, I'm the real one not the other guy.

Scott: Great, well thank you so much Chris. We’ll chat again soon. Have a great day, thank you.

Chris: Thank you.