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.

  • Jason

    I’ve often struggled balancing being “real” with being competitive. I often try to break the stereotype by showing how I’m different, but I think perhaps it is easy to overdo it and inadvertently alienate people or appear boastful.

    I would be interested to know how others break the stereotype in a job-interview setting, when everyone is dressed to look the same in their suits and are already putting on their most polite manners. I guess other than being charismatic, the major factor is just what’s on your resume?

  • Basu

    It’s the same when thinking of what to put on a business card. I agonized for hours about what to put on it. And the thing that taught me was: if you’re making an elevator pitch, make sure you have something to pitch. Otherwise it’s just BS. So now I’m working on building the product behind my pitch (me) as well as the pitch itself. And I suspect you are doing the same.

  • Maxim

    I think that the key point here is to know the target audience and the message you want to deliver. When you know it clarity will be achieved automatically.

    Task to “describe yourself in 30secs” is pointless unless specified. When communicating with someone you don’t just mention the facts you consider to be most important for yourself. But you tell what the particular person (potential partner, friend, colleague) is interested in hearing.

    And sometimes we just talk.

    PS Sorry I misspelled the address in the previous comment.

  • Sid Savara

    Hey Scott,

    I think part of the issue for me is context. I could certainly describe, sort of like you alluded to above, my core values and what drives me.

    However, a step beyond that is who I am, my activities and what the major “big rocks” in my life are. Those line up with my values, but may not be immediately obvious. For example, I’m not a minimalist, but I am pretty ruthless about getting rid of things I don’t use. But it’s not because I I don’t like clutter – it’s because I am a very future oriented person. I don’t like holding on and looking back – I like looking forward.

  • Bob

    Three sentences: Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going?

  • Duff

    …the truth is we all have to sell ourselves every day…

    I don’t think this is true for most people who aren’t single or salespeople/entrepreneurs continually prospecting for customers. When I’ve been single or involved in a start-up, I did much more daily selling, and it was much more important to have an elevator pitch, groom nicely, have business cards on hand, etc. But I almost never do any selling of myself or any products or projects nowadays—and what a relief!

    The false notion that we are always selling ourselves (a common theme in Personal Development texts) contributes to a world where no activity can take place outside of the marketplace. Everything becomes commodified, packaged, branded, and sold.

    That said, being able to clearly and succinctly communicate what you are selling (if you are an entrepreneur/salesman or working on a project that requires the involvement of others) is a useful thing. I don’t think this applies as much to dating, necessarily, which is more about seeking rapport and figuring out if you two are a good fit with each other (for monogamous dating outcomes that is).

  • Topi

    I think we are “selling” ourselves all the time, irrespective of whether we’re in a business context or not. Whether you’re meeting a potential customer for the first time, or at the supermarket buying milk, the people around you are picking up cues about you based on the way you dress, the way you conduct yourself, the expression on you face, to mention just a few. So, you’ve already imparted a heap of linformation before you even say a word – and what you say will be judged against the other information to see if it’s compatible. So, a good part of the 30 seconds might be taken up with information you share before you even say a word. Similarly, your job title or other information on your business card, website, blog, voicemail message, are all part of your 30 seconds. I think it’s important to work out what message you want to send, and then to understand that we’re sending messages with more than just the words we choose. Having said that, I think it is important to have at think about the words you want to use to describe yourself and your product (if you’re in a business situation) because the first contact you have with a new customer could be over the phone where the words you use and the way you use them will be a key part of the information you share.

  • Andrew

    I definitely agree that we are selling ourselves everyday. Even if we have the illusion of a “real,” steady job, we are selling ourselves to our coworkers and to our managers/bosses that we are the right people to keep and not be outsourced.

    When I first read this post, the first thing that came to mind was the idea of analogies from Made to Stick. Analogies “like Jaws in space” to describe the movie Aliens is incredibly simple, but memorable. So maybe a good elevator pitch would be an analogy of who we are, linking our unique attributes to the common sterotypes?

    “Like Seth Godin, but younger.”

    Or “Like a machine, but with a great attitude.”

    Or “Like a computer whiz, but with a great understanding of financial concepts.”

  • Kate

    Thanks for such a great topic Scott!

    Selling must be fun!

    I prefer simply to be completely myself, having fun, smiling and taking everything as easy as it is just possible. I do love attention and can’t spend a minute ”just being normal”.

    The best selling practice for me came from the Estee Lauder – the pioneer of beauty industry. She used one such tactic to break the prestigious Galleries Lafayette account in Paris. When the manager refused to stock her products, Lauder “accidentally” spilled her Youth Dew/new perfume/ on the floor during a demonstration in the middle of a crowd. As the appealing scent wafted through the air, it quickly aroused the interest of customers, who began asking where they could purchase the product. Seeing this, the manager capitulated and gave Lauder her initial order.

  • Ben

    Thanks Dave. The things I need for my business now are not for sale, unfortunately. I need a solid pitch, a good benefit proposition and continual kicks in the ass. This post definitely provided a good kick in the ass. Thanks for that.

  • Laurelle

    All good things happen with a great elevator pitch. I did walk on an elevator, I did notice the head of the corporation whose offices were on the top floor. I did give him my pitch. He asked to follow him off the elevator and walked to an employee and said to him “Investigate, then let’s do it.” That sale was worth 300K!

    During my corporate career I somehow hit the elevator as the same time as our intense, mean, VP. And I mean MEAN. I would look u my numbers every night (pre internet), memorize them and every morning, would give her an update. She promoted me and was never MEAN to me. It pays to prepare the speech, practice the speech and then deliver the speech!

    I work with entrepreneurs and business people create the elevator speech that will take their business to the top floor.” If you need a clear concise answer to the question, “What do you do?”, come work with me. Laurelle with Innerwealth Speakers

  • Andrea

    Thanks for the article Scott.

    I used to have my pitch down pat when I was a lawyer but now that I am moving into other fields I have become nervous when people ask me “what is it that you do” or even “where do you live” as neither answers are straight forward norm anymore!

    Your article and everyone’s useful comments have made me realise that I need to redefine my pitch as I’ve learnt in the last few weeks that there is a lot of interest in your lifestyle when you have stepped out of corporate life into another area entirely.

  • Jonny |

    Nice article and I was especially interested to read that it took four years to come up with your two sentences as I have trouble going a week without redefining my blog. It was a great relief and also kudos on having put so much time and effort into it over such a long period of time. I am sure that it has improved your life just as much as I know it has improved others.

  • Seth @ Happenchance

    This is a cool post, but I’d like to add something. Selling yourself to others is important, but it’s most important that you can sell yourself to yourself.

    We define our lives through stories and narratives. The way we frame and present these stories will affect the way we deal with situations, challenges, and other people.

    For example, I know people who always have the ‘worst job ever.’ They proceed to follow that with stories that illustrate the point. If you examine their stories, though, you see their jobs are no worse than most jobs, it’s all in the way they frame them; maybe they had one really terrible job, but their next jobs they look for evidence to support their past experience,thus creating yet another ‘worst job ever.’

    If they could re-frame the story they tell themselves, their jobs wouldn’t be so bad.

  • AHA

    Interesting to see that you are a fan of LessWrong. Can’t say I’m surprised 🙂

    I suspect there’s a pretty big niche in self-help for those who could take LW and dumb it down for the general audience. So far I’ve only seen you and PJ Eby doing that.

    Are you an INTJ, btw?

  • AHA

    Btw, I’ve developed the same interesting in selling/marketing in the last year or so. It’s odd, since it’s not in my personality type AT ALL, but I’ve approached it like a nerd puzzle to solve and it’s become addictive that way. Reformulating skill domains so they become more easily digestible to your individual information processing/utility function might be a good blog post, yes? 🙂

  • David

    First and foremost, talk only about what you know to be true. It comes across more naturally.
    Second, stick to your focus (subject) and stay off the rabbit trail.
    And last, close. What statement, word, idea, or inspiration do you want to leave them with to meditate on?

    Anchorage, Alaska
    it’s not as cold as you think!

  • Scott Young


    Winnipeg, Manitoba,
    -Yes, it’s as cold as you think.


    No idea on the personality traits. I find them amusing but not particularly useful from a self-dev perspective.

    I go through phases of liking Less Wrong and not. Yes, it has some very provocative ideas, but there is also a lot of esoteric ramblings that I find less useful. I prefer reading philosophy in books than blogs, since it allows me more time to digest.


  • Craig Thomas

    Nice post. I’ve thought about elevator pitches and selling myself in 30 seconds before, but, I’ve never actually started on constructing anything. I suppose it’s because I’ve never needed it. Although, I can see it’s value and you’ve outlined it here very neatly. I’ll give it a try. 🙂

  • Richard | RichardShelmerdine.c

    Personal branding is something I really need to put more effort into. You could have the best product in the world but if nobody knows about it it will just lay around and nobody will get to experience it.

  • Lou

    “The best pitches aren’t pitched. The most effective communicators give the effortless impression that they aren’t trying to communicate anything.”

    Interesting point. I am trying to find an affordable place to live in the city, and it’s terribly difficult. I keep having to basically get interviewed by all these people at once, and the competition is fierce. I feel like every time I have gone to one of these, I was seriously trying to sell myself, because when I look back, I just have this feeling that they must have thought how contrived I seemed. How anxious. Or whatever. So next time I’m going to aim for the appearance of relaxed and effortless. It’s like they’re looking for a lover to move in with them (seriously), and no one is attracted to a lover who’s nervous and trying too hard and wanting too badly… everyone wants the self-confident, relaxed person. Of course, in actually living with them it will probably be like that naturally as it has been in my previous housing situations where there wasn’t really competition, but it’s the vibe you give off.