April 8, 2014

Crafting an elevator pitch

Before you read any further, stop and consider this: Who do you work for, and what does your job entail? You've got thirty seconds to hold my interest; there's a hundred other people in the room with whom I'd like to chat.

That's the position we often encounter at conferences, events and meetups, when we're trying to make quick, meaningful connections among a roomful of strangers. It's a bit like speed-dating, except we can't even make superficial snap decisions.

The "information overload" approach

"I work for Towers Watson. We're a sizable company (about 14,000 employees worldwide - I checked on the Towers Watson wiki page). The company, as it exists today, was formed as the result of a series of mergers. We're listed on the New York Stock Exchange. The company primarily deals in professional services / consultancy, although I work in the software division which produces a wide range of supporting products and solutions. The Cambridge team develops just a small part of that product portfolio... wait, where are you going? I haven't told you anything about my role yet!"

- Me, TestBash, last week

Trying to deliver this information repeatedly to new faces at TestBash allowed me to refine this a great deal. Information overload is rarely useful; it can overwhelm, and suddenly you've gone from telling people everything to telling them nothing.

The most important lesson I learned was to simplify and generalise. Make broad, sweeping statements which allow people to say "that's similar to what I do", or "that's different to how we do it". If somebody wants to know more detail about something, they'll ask; let them steer the discussion to a place where you can find common ground. This way, even if you're working in a completely different industry to your fellow attendee, you'll almost always discover a shared experience that you can talk about.

The "elevator pitch" approach

You're probably familiar with the term "elevator pitch": If you suddenly had a brief moment to sell a concept/idea to somebody influential, what would you say? You need to be brief and informative; snappy but compelling. It's difficult to achieve balance here, so I prefer to ask myself "What do I want to know from a fellow tester?" and try to answer those questions myself in my own statement.

When I'm in a room of testers, these are usually my starting questions when I meet somebody new:

  • What's the purpose of your applications?
  • What are the major challenges that you deal with?
  • Who are your users?
  • What is your testing focus?

So, I try to shape my elevator pitch to answer those questions. I don't recite it word-for-word, but it generally encompasses most of the following sentiments:

  • "We produce financial modelling software which helps the insurance industry to make complex decisions." - This is a very broad overview of what we do; it's not all we do, but it's enough to contextualise the rest of the pitch (and is enough to send people running away if they really don't care!)
  • "We generate large volumes of data, involving large numbers." - This gives an insight into some of the challenges that we face on a daily basis (runtime performance, memory usage, distributed processing, data storage) without overwhelming with technical detail.
  • "We have a mixture of desktop and browser-based software, and an enterprise version which allows for processing to be distributed acros multiple agent machines" - I'm still refining this bit, and sometimes mention individual technologies that we're using (such as Delphi and SQL), but again I'm trying to establish some common ground with who I'm talking to.
  • "Our software is used within our own consultancy team, so many of our biggest users are within our office" - Gives some insight into our office environment, as well as our user base, and contextualises some of our testing; having easy access to frequent users means that we can get quick feedback on changes.
  • "Most of the complex mathematical calculations are covered by unit tests, meaning that the test team is freed-up to focus on front-end testing" - Again, an oversimplification (and differs from product to product, even among the Cambridge software suite) but leads to follow-up questions depending on the interests of the person you're talking to.

From my experiences in Brighton, it seems to be enough to get a conversation going, whether it's work-related or otherwise - don't be afraid to discover that someone can't relate to what you're doing.

Whatever you choose to say, have confidence in yourself. If you mis-speak slightly, don't worry - nobody's going to know (or care) if you say there's 10 testers in your team when there are actually 20. (Somebody at TestBash actually broke-off from giving me their elevator pitch, to say apologetically: "What am I doing, you probably don't care about what I do." - they were very wrong!)

Good luck with creating your own elevator pitch, and maybe we can practice our respective sales patter to each other at an event in the near future!

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