Could You Sell Who You Are in 30 Seconds?

How fast is a first impression?

Life is an elevator pitch. You sell your skills when you want a job. You sell your products when you want business. Heck, even asking for a date is selling, except you’re selling yourself.

The biggest problem in communicating yourself in any domain is simply time. You have an entire life history, interests and a unique personality. How do you reduce that to just a few seconds when first meeting someone?

Rapid-fire selling seems like a skill only needed by start-up entrepreneurs or telemarketers. However, the truth is we all have to sell ourselves every day, often with even bigger constraints.

Communicating, Not Selling

I’m often put-off by the idea of selling. It invokes images of used-car salesmen and miracle pill infomercials, pushing shady products with less than sterling reputations. Can’t we just be real, why do we have to sell ourselves at all?

You know what, I completely agree. We need to be real people. The goal of meeting someone new, sending the first email or asking for a date shouldn’t be to manipulate.

However, that doesn’t change the key problem: even if you aren’t trying to manipulate, you still need to adequately communicate who you are, so that the right people will want to know more and the wrong people won’t waste their time.

Whether your goal is to sell or simply present yourself, you’re still giving an elevator pitch.

The Simple Necessity of an Elevator Pitch

The elevator pitch gets its name from a hypothetical setting:

You’re in an elevator with a big customer or potential investor. You have only the time between the main floor and the executive level to grab their interest in your idea before they leave. What do you say?

Probably the biggest value I’ve received out of my entire business school education was getting a chance to practice elevator pitches. I’m certainly not a master, but the practice opened my eyes to how frequently we need to sell ourselves in little time, and how insanely difficult it is to do this skillfully.

Actually, the more traditional elevator pitch makes the task seem easy. When you meet a person casually, you’re not expected to quickly list off your attributes. Any communication of who you are needs to be done subtly and often implicitly.

What Makes a Good Pitch?

There are many elements to a good pitch. Confidence, brevity, interest-grabbing and being relaxed are all obvious points. So is a dedication to practice and feedback, noticing what works and what doesn’t.

One element that has been repeatedly been hitting me on the head is the notion of cached thoughts. This is the idea that humans, in general, gather more information about someone by the stereotypical cues surrounding them.

Cached Thoughts – Do We Think in Stereotypes?

You can read the original article about cached thoughts here. However, the basic idea is that because of the computing restrictions on the human brain, cognitive researchers suspect that a large way the brain can make interesting decisions is by precalculating answers in advance. That is, it is far easier to follow a pre-cached thought than to think something new each time you encounter it.

A great blogging example would be to imagine in your head what kind of arguments I’m going to make if I use the following words:

  1. Simplicity
  2. Uncluttered
  3. Flow

Now compare that if I use the words:

  1. Ruthless focus
  2. Organized
  3. Completely engaged

In reality, the word pairs might as well be synonyms. Simplicity and ruthless focus are often used in the contexts of completely different types of articles, but they represent basically the same idea.

However, when I use the word simplicity, you get a flood of pre-cached mental associations that are different from when I use the word ruthless focus. If you’re like me, simplicity conjures a zen-like state without worry and ruthless focus implies an obsessive ambition. Even if the two words may have the same practical implications.

Is the Elevator Pitch Harder for Remarkable People?

Ultimately, this notion of cached thoughts means it is far easier to communicate who you are if you fit a stereotypical image. If you’re the jock or computer geek, down to the core, then your communication probably reinforces those associations in that person’s mind.

But what about the jock that’s also a vegetarian and mathematics whiz? Or the computer geek that is a world-class tango instructor and stand-up comedian?

I believe the range of success for remarkable people in these situations is far greater. If you’re pretty easily classified, then it’s difficult to botch your initial presentation, but also hard to really intrigue people.

However, if you thoroughly defy your stereotype, you have the potential to be extremely interesting. With that, though, you also have the increased chance of being wrongly labeled.

Improving My Elevator Pitch – In Business and Life

As I said earlier, I’m no expert on pitching myself. It took me close to four years to create a decent 2-sentence description of the blog and my bio on this website. And I’m still not satisfied with it.

Improving my elevator pitch, and my ability to communicate myself has been an ongoing goal of mine for the last few years. Here are a few of the steps I’ve taken to better craft my first thirty seconds:

  • Become more observant of the power of words. I’m trying to stop myself from using technically accurate words if the invoke the wrong image.
  • Presenting contradictions early on. By trying to create contrasts earlier, I’ve found you can temporarily disable the normal response to categorize. If I meet a tangoing Python programmer, I’ll be more willing to accept other characteristics that don’t fit my stereotypes.
  • Debugging the implicit layers. The clothes you wear, way you speak, body language and everything communicate the pitch on your behalf. I’m striving to notice when these don’t match who I want to be.
  • Finding the most natural way to give information. The best pitches aren’t pitched. The most effective communicators give the effortless impression that they aren’t trying to communicate anything.
  • Notice other’s cached thoughts. Try to figure out what the first impressions are triggering in other people’s minds.

Could you sell yourself in 30 seconds? 3 sentences? Better, could you create the ideal first impression without needing to sell anything at all? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.