Going Up?

Winter 2013

Soundings

Going Up?

By Daniel H. Pink

Daniel H. Pink is author of Drive and A Whole New Mind. From To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others (Riverhead Books). ©2012

Elisha Otis’s elevator safety-brake breakthrough had a catalytic effect on many industries, including the business of giving advice. Almost from the moment that elevators became commonplace, gurus like Dale Carnegie advised us to be ever ready with our “elevator speech.” The idea was that if you found yourself stepping into an elevator and encountering the big boss, you needed to be able to explain who you were and what you did between the time the doors closed shut and dinged back open at your floor.

For several decades during the twentieth century, the elevator pitch was standard operating procedure. But times and technology change. In the twenty-first century, this well-worn practice has grown a bit threadbare for at least two reasons. First, organizations today are generally more democratic than they were in the stratified world of the gray flannel suit. Many CEOs, even in large companies, sit in cubicles like everyone else or in open floor plans that allow contact and collaboration. The closed door is less and less the norm. Fifty years ago, the only chance you or I might get to communicate with the company CEO was at the elevator. Today, we can swing by her workstation, send her an email, or ask her a question at an all-hands meeting.

Second, when that mid-twentieth-century CEO stepped off the elevator and returned to his office, he probably had a few phone calls, memos, and meetings to contend with. Nowadays, everyone—whether we’re the head of an organization or its freshest hire—faces a torrent of information. The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that the typical American hears or reads more than 100,000 words every day. If we leave our desk for a few minutes to grab a cup of coffee, greeting us upon our return will be new emails, texts, and tweets—not to mention all the blog posts we haven’t read, videos we haven’t watched, and, if we’re over 40, phone calls we haven’t returned.

Today, we have more opportunities to get out our message than Elisha Otis ever imagined. But our recipients have far more distractions than the 1853 conventioneers who assembled to watch Otis’s public demonstration of not falling to his death. As a result, we need to broaden our repertoire of pitches for an age of limited attention and caveat venditor.

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