This past May, I was at a happy hour in New York City. It took place the night before a big conference I was about to attend, and the nine of us who had gotten there early were having a group conversation.

The organizer of the happy hour put me on the spot and asked me what I do. And I started to provide what many would call an "elevator pitch," but only about 10 or 15 seconds in she interrupted me and starting talking with everyone else. But this wasn't out of rudeness--the conversation they had was out of eagerness to chew on and flesh out something I had said.

In fact, the excitement created by what I said in those few seconds runs in direct contrast to what most people consider to be an elevator pitch. If you keep using this conventional wisdom in response to the question "What do you do?" you'll miss a key opportunity to create excitement around your work.

Most people's elevator pitches are just a recitation of what they do. "I do this, and I do this, and I do this." What this means is that it's not only transactional, but it really does become a pitch--the speaker's attempt to get others to say yes or no to buying something from them.

But imagine if TED speakers got on the stage and just talked about what they did as a clear attempt to get people to buy their products or services. Audiences wouldn't have been empowered by that and TED would have died out long ago.

Similarly, people at networking events and conferences aren't looking to be pitched anything. They're looking to be empowered to solve problems in their life. And the only people who might be empowered by a conventional pitch are those who need someone who does that exact thing at that exact moment in time.

What I did at that happy hour is not really an elevator pitch at all. Here's what I actually started to say that night:

There are many experts out there who wish to grow their influence by becoming a thought leader. But what most experts do is create their messaging from their own perspective--they fill their talks, books, and other content with tons of information that fails to stick in their audience's minds. But the most effective communication values the recipient over the sender ...

That's when the other members of the group interrupted me and started their animated discussion. But there's a reason they all wanted to discuss what I said at that particular moment. As is the case with 46 of the 50 most popular TED talks, the above content features an underlying idea expressed in a single sentence: "The most effective communication values the recipient over the sender."

This type of sentence--what I call a silver bullet--provides the listener with an intrinsically actionable recipe for future success: If you want to be more effective at communicating, then do whatever you can to address your audience's needs above your own.

It also sets up a problem that many listeners would care about solving (how to go from being an expert to becoming a thought leader) and the typical way of solving that problem (providing information) so as to provide context. And here's the final part, what I had intended to say at the end when I got interrupted:

I use this underlying idea of audience first to help these experts become the face of a movement.

That final sentence describes my work so as to still answer the question "What do you do?" An elevator pitch doesn't work because it's a pitch. It only attempts to sell. What I said led to the other group members' excited discussion, which means they were empowered.

It means that I gave them not an elevator pitch but an elevator speech. To do this, I followed this four-part formula:

  1. Establish the problem. ("Many experts wish to grow their influence.")
  2. Identify the typical way the problem is solved. ("They create their messaging from their own perspective.")
  3. Provide the silver bullet recipe for success. ("Effective communication values the recipient over the sender.")
  4. Explain what you do to fulfill this recipe. ("I use this underlying idea of audience first to help these experts become the face of a movement.")

Because of the silver bullet recipe, we have the ability to empower our audience--even just a small group at a happy hour--without having to take more than 15 or 20 seconds to do so. And this sense of empowerment is what will make your elevator speech not about yourself but about those who would benefit from your ideas.

My little speech got totally derailed because of how excited the others in the group were to suddenly have that clarity. But they did circle back to me a minute or two later. I eventually explained what I did and I've since maintained great connections with these folks all these months later. But it was a funny example of how much power is in describing our work not on the basis of what we do but on how others can utilize it for their own success.