Do you have a killer elevator speech? In other words, can you tell a fellow passenger the essence of your business before the elevator stops at the ground floor?
If you are at a networking event meeting potential clients, your elevator speech is a great way to introduce yourself and sum up your business in a nutshell. But there are other advantages, too.
If you can’t clearly and concisely define what you do, how can you possibly create an effective sales and marketing strategy? In a negotiation about a possible assignment, how can you demonstrate your worth to your potential client without clearly understanding the value you bring to the table?
And when it comes time for your business to change course, how will you know how to plot the new route if you don’t know your starting point?
Students as Business Owners and Bankers
In my “Freelancing for Creative Professionals” course at the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications, we recently explored the elevator speech with a role-playing exercise. The exercise has two parts.
In the first part, students work in teams of two. One student plays the role of the business owner, while the other student plays the role of a banker. Each student has the opportunity to play both roles.
In the second part, the banker takes what they have learned and presents it to the bank’s “board of directors,” i.e., their fellow students in the course.
The challenge for the student playing the role of the business owner is simple: clearly and concisely define your business proposal. What products or services do you sell? Who are your target clients? Why will they buy from you rather than from your competition?
The students prepared for this role by reviewing our first assignment of the semester, which was to answer exactly those questions. At this point in the semester, the students are working on their final business plan, so they need to have this part down pat.
The challenge for the student playing the role of the banker is a bit more complex. First, they have to make sure they understand all aspects of the business being presented by the student sitting across from them.
Second, they have to ask probing questions: What experience do you have in this field? Are you knowledgeable about your target clients’ businesses and the problems they face? Is there a demand for your product or service? Who is your competition?
Third, they have to stand up and present to the rest of the class.
This assignment has three goals. First, it gives students the chance to practice their elevator speech in a (relatively) nonthreatening situation — better in the classroom than at their first Chamber of Commerce meeting.
Second, it provides an opportunity for all class members to hear about each other’s business proposals. Perhaps there will be an opportunity for some of them to work together, or to refer each other for assignments.
Third, it enables the entire class to comment on and critique the student’s proposal in an impartial and nonpersonal way — because it is the banker, rather than the business owner, standing at the front of the room.
To analyze the business proposal, we adopted a modified version of the SWOT analysis, which looks at such proposals in terms of Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. I served as secretary, writing down the students’ comments on the classroom whiteboard.
One thing we quickly learned is that most of the business proposals scored the same on the SWOT Analysis. In other words, they had similar strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.
Strengths and Weaknesses
By far the biggest strength we found is when the student has worked — or is currently working — in their chosen field. For example, one of my students already has a small recording studio, working with local musicians. He understands the business, knows the hardware and software, and has some paying clients.
This kind of strength is invaluable for a start-up business, especially if you want to convince someone to lend you money to expand it into a full-scale operation. In fact, two of the guest speakers who regularly visit my class — Aaron Johnson, owner of Pretty Penny Productions , and Zach Sykes, owner of Octagon Solutions  — took similar routes by establishing themselves in business while they were still undergraduates at the University of South Carolina.
Among the weaknesses, the one that stood out involved competition: how can someone just graduating hope to compete — in terms of price, quality, and/or service — with established professionals? What will it take to overcome that hurdle? How can you gain the experience to become experienced?
Opportunities and Threats
We saw a number of opportunities for students to broaden their businesses. First, technology can help them increase the scope of what they offer their clients, thus providing additional income streams.
For example, several students want to be photographers specializing in weddings, portraits, school photographs, team photographs, etc. Perhaps not initially, but sometime soon, these young professionals should think about expanding into video, multimedia, and Web-based offerings.
Second, physical location is becoming less and less important — again, thanks to technology.
A student who wants to offer business advice to start-up companies in Columbia, South Carolina, could probably broaden her reach by developing online seminars or offering individual counseling via Skype or other conferencing software. A Web-based business is mostly free of geographical constraints and can attract clients from virtually anywhere.
The biggest threat we identified is economic — both macro and micro. On the macro side, much of what freelancers do is directly tied to economic cycles.
We seem to be on the upswing now, but there is still great uncertainty. Is this the perfect time to risk starting a new business, or the time to hunker down with a day job until the future is more clear?
On the micro side, where will a new business owner find the resources to cover start-up costs and survive until the business becomes profitable?
The Ground Floor
Although a killer elevator speech won’t solve all of your business problems, it can certainly help you think about your business in a more useful way. Especially if you are in a field which has a lot of amateur practitioners, such as photography, what do you offer that they don’t?
Consider your elevator speech. Do you tell folks that you are a photographer? Sorry, but everyone is a photographer these days — and technology has improved quality, with auto-exposure, autofocus, and auto fill-flash.
Do tell them you solve your corporate clients’ visual-communications problems using a blend of photography, video, and multimedia? Hmm … now I’m beginning to see the extra value you bring to the table.
And you say your vision is based on years of experience as a storytelling photojournalist? Excellent!
I think this is my floor … Nice to meet you!