Soft Skills

How To Have an Effective Elevator Conversation: Do’s and Don’ts From My Experience

Matthew French, ConocoPhillips
Photo Courtesy: Matt French

I only recently heard the term "elevator speech," but the phrase was not lost on me and I suspect the term carries relevance to most people who have spent any time in the professional world. An elevator speech refers to the brief, but meaningful, conversation one could have with colleagues and management in those fleeting awkward moments you spend in the elevator shuffling between floors. This may or may not be something that comes naturally to you, but a little forethought will make these random exchanges more purposeful and may bolster how you are viewed by management, which can help in the future. A recent experience I had in my own office proves a useful example in this space.

A little background on myself: I am fairly outgoing in the office environment. This is relevant in the context of the elevator speech, because I frequently tire of the typical exchange that you would expect to have in the elevator in the morning.

This may sound familiar:

Person 1: Hi, how are you?

Person 2: Good, how are you?

Person 1: Good

Sometimes the cycle can repeat out of habit and Person 1’s response becomes “Good, how are you?”

Rather than responding "Well, still good," or becoming perturbed at the other party for clearly not listening, I strive to change the game. When someone asks their Monday morning opener of "How was your weekend?", I thoughtfully respond with something altogether different:

"Excellent!"

"Unbelievably good!"

"Terrifying!"

To date, every single one of my responses has garnered significantly more than "Good, how was yours?"

After a few months, I made this a habit and the responses were always different: some positive, some simply toeing the company mantra. One day, I stepped into the elevator with a senior vice president (SVP) and found doubt. I thought that he would take this new type of response as an artificial attempt to gain notoriety. I knew it was coming, and when he asked, "How are you today?", I reverted to the trusty "Oh, good, I guess." I almost could not believe how terrible it sounded when it came out. Was I not even sure if I was good? To make matters worse, he responded "That's good, as long as you are generating value," quite certain of himself.

I'm sure this exchange was less than noteworthy from the SVP's viewpoint, and while that is not necessarily a negative thing, it assuredly is not positive. To put that into perspective, we can reflect on the intent and potential outcomes of the elevator conversation. The conversation is brief as it only takes a few moments to reach your destination and part ways. There are exceptions of course, but in this short period it would be difficult to make or break one's career. There simply is not enough time to solve complex technical issues, or report on them if you already have. Conversely, it would equally be as difficult to detail enough faults to seal your career's fate.

Consider though, if the exchanges that you have with the professionals you meet in these situations are positive experiences on an ongoing basis, your coworkers, management, and others will begin to look forward to these exchanges. These positive exchanges will be memorable for these people, and you will be tied to them. Even if you do not personally know the people that you engage with, given a positive experience, your face will more likely be recalled for longer than if the exchange was neutral or even slightly negative.

Regardless of your technical prowess, the elevator conversation, when used properly, can be a powerful skill that warrants development.

What was truly incredible for me about the example I used above was the realization that if I had stuck to my guns, and treated the SVP like every other colleague, the exchange would have been quite good and my normal response would have worked wonderfully. With this in mind, and a more serious consideration of what an elevator speech is, there are a few conclusions to draw that can make this an exceptional skill.

The first thing to consider is the lesson that I learned the hard way: To approach each elevator conversation the same, regardless of the person's title or position. It is easier, honest, and it will be appreciated.

How should you start the elevator conversation? In the examples above, I am relying on my counterpart's curiosity to fan the flames of the exchange, which is effective, but passive. A more fruitful tactic is known as high-quality (-level) inquiry. This involves asking open-ended questions that require both thought and empathy. These types of questions and statements invite a high-quality response from your colleague and seek to understand his or her point of view on the topic in question. Avoid questions or statements that will lead to one-word answers. This provides obstacles for the conversation which will stagnate and stop in the time it takes to move floors. Bear the time in mind as you will likely not have a lot of it.

You don't need to address work specifically, it can be kept light and informal, but it should be engaging. An example would be discussing the weather. A low-quality inquiry would sound like:

"Nice weather we are having, hey?"

This is both leading and is likely to evoke a single-word response. The conclusion that the weather is good is already stated. It is simply easier to agree with a "Yes" in this short window than to disagree and convince you why.

A high-quality inquiry may be more of the form:

"What are you going to do with all of this nice weather we are having?"

This is more likely to engage the person and require them to craft a thoughtful response.

The next thing to consider is high-quality (-level) advocacy. They have delivered their thoughtful response, and now it is up to you to do something with it. Your response will illustrate your side of the topic, which may lead to a longer conversation. You should attempt to describe your thought process or point of view to allow your partner to use high-level inquiry or advocacy in turn.

Statements that are low-level inquiries are conclusive or assuming such as "You're right, it's supposed to rain next week." A high-quality advocacy statement may sound something like: "It's true, but my grass is always green because we installed Astroturf after the second dog." This statement considers a response and introduces a separate topic so that they may use high-level inquiry in response.

As a captive audience, most of us have fallen victim to the overwhelming silence that has ensued shortly after advertising monitors were installed inside the elevator. Consequently, the art of the elevator conversation seems to be a dying one. A final consideration to make when dusting off your elevator conversation skills is to ask what do you want out of the conversation?

Elevator exchanges are very useful for consultants. An acid test for a consultant is to convey his or her key ideas in the 20-sec to 60-sec elevator ride to a senior client executive. The higher the executive’s echelon in the client organization, the better. The clarity of thought and speech is important here. You may want to be memorable, funny, professional, technical, or maybe you just want to pass the time on the way to the top floor. Ultimately, you can be any of these things as long as you are genuine. This will go extremely far in ensuring that your conversations are positive and over time generate lasting memories in the minds of your colleagues that will be favorable.


Author and TWA Editor Matt French (right) recommends approaching each elevator conversation in the same way, regardless of the person's title or position, and keeping it honest and engaging.

French is a reservoir engineer working in ConocoPhillips Canada’s Surmont Reservoir Modeling group. He has held engineering roles both in conventional assets and oil sands, and currently performs detailed thermal simulations on various oil sands developments in the Surmont asset that allow for characterization of the reservoir and associated production. He has also worked to develop Surmont projects, including water source and disposal wells, and the steam-assisted gravity drainage observation wells, in addition to developing sustaining pads and infill wells. French holds a BS in mechanical engineering from the University of Calgary and a professional engineering designation in the province of Alberta.