Hoping to Rise? Master the Elevator Talk

By Gabe Goldberg
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 20, 2008

The best career advice I ever received was from my father, back when I was in high school.

"Communicate," he said.

That one word sure beat "plastics," that infamous counsel from the movie "The Graduate."

In the working world, people communicate through 30-second elevator speeches, résumés, business plans, articles in industry magazines and water cooler conversations. The medium doesn't matter, nor does whether the setting is a 10-person start-up or a Fortune 500 company. But telling your story -- letting people know who you are and why they might care -- opens career doors, experts say.

Joe Gallaher, chief executive of Systems Programming Consultants, a high-tech recruiting firm with an office in Rockville, is convinced that many tech-support workers chose that business because they relate better to machines than to people. But, he noted, "just having an intimate knowledge of the operating system does not guarantee your landing a job as a systems programmer. Even backroom technicians must communicate to market themselves."

He said, "A less-qualified, good interviewer" -- recruiter-speak for a good communicator -- "will beat out a reticent technician almost every time."

Because someone you have just met, such as an interviewer, may care mostly about what you can do for him or her, identifying yourself in the broadest possible terms can be best. Suzanne Harris, chief executive of Magnificent Publications, a D.C. publishing consultancy, suggested using brief but powerful statements such as, "I write for clients," "I help people solve computer problems" or "I manage projects."

She said, "If the other party doesn't immediately respond, you might give one or two short examples to avoid an awkward pause. At that point you'll either get a question inviting more information or the conversation will shift to a different topic."

The same advice applies to crafting your résumés, taking advantage of the written-word opportunity to be more specific and emphasize accomplishments.

Companies as well as individuals need well-constructed introductions. Carol Covin, a Northern Virginia entrepreneur and writer, has been a commercial reviewer for a grants organization and coaches grant applicants. An exercise she has them perform creates the briefest possible overview of their promise to customers. She calls it a virtual business card because they can "hand" it to people at networking events.

As examples, she uses well-known corporate slogans, such as FedEx (When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight) and Apple (The computer for the rest of us).

Covin notes that company executives preparing to present at local meetings of the MIT Enterprise Forum, a group for technology entrepreneurs, can work three hours to distill what they do into six to eight words, but that it's a good exercise.

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