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What Is Your Organization's "Elevator Message"?

Excerpt from Attracting the Attention Your Cause Deserves

When I first heard the phrase "elevator message," I wondered what was so important about delivering a message while rising to the 15th floor. Then someone explained the idea was to be able to describe an organization's work to an outsider in the short space of an elevator ride. I've been a confirmed elevator man ever since.

I've known several masters of the elevator message. Each knew how to sound a few simple and powerful notes about his organization in such a way that every visitor left with an understanding of why the group mattered.

There is a knack to honing a simple message. The more tightly focused your niche, the easier it is to express who you are—witness groups from a local hospice to Habitat for Humanity. But even the sharpest niche can be subverted if you insist on saying too much in your message.

Given about 90 seconds, what would you say if asked, "What does Save Our Families do?"

You'll need to be direct and focused, answering just the basic questions:

  • What does our organization do?
  • Where is it heading?
  • Why should anyone care?
The fact is, your time with reporters and visitors is fleeting. You want to impart key bits of memorable information that characterize your work.

Maybe you're a "camp for sick kids" that "transforms lives" by allowing youngsters to "play and be themselves for the first time." There is much more that leaders of the Hole in the Wall Gang Camps would want you to know. But, as I learned in working with the group, it is the beauty of allowing kids to be just kids that lies at the heart of the program.

Rest assured that Paul Newman, who founded the camps, could speak at length about the numbers of campers served, the careful medical management of the camps, the wonderful facilities that have been created for the kids, and the important respite that the kids' going away to camp offers stressed-out parents.

But you have to restrain yourself in the elevator—offering just enough to convey who you are and what's special about what you do, and no more.

Another way to think about an elevator message is to imagine a friend standing a hundred yards away on the other side of a river, and you have to shout for her to hear. What are the few declarative sentences you would be sure to get out if you were describing your organization? In the case of the Hole in the Wall Gang Camps, it would be:

We have camps for sick kids!
The experience transforms their lives!
The kids can play and be themselves—for the first time!

What do you want to shout for the world to hear? Figure that out, and you have the tight, focused message that will inform all of your publicity efforts.

Telling Your Story

Once you've polished your elevator message, it's time to tell your story.

Amid the chaos of life, nothing gives order and meaning as much as a well-told story. More to the point, stories grab people. Give a reporter a tale about a 75-year-old grandmother graduating from your business college, and he'll go for it every time.

You don't have to be a great storyteller to pitch a story to reporters. Just be sure you know all the facts—no surprises, please—and can provide the outline of why the story will make a great feature or broadcast segment.

Let's say yours is a community hospital with new outreach programs for inner-city families. Greater visibility will help boost patient numbers and perhaps scare up some new donors to meet the high costs of additional staff and facilities.

What is going on in your organization that is newsworthy? Sure, outstanding doctors and nurses are counseling families on drug abuse, HIV/AIDS, and other issues. But they just sit still in rented office space talking across tables.

That is the lackluster setting. But what is the story dying to be told? You won't know until you contact the outreach staff and learn how the program is making a difference.

When you hear that 11-year-old Johnny's life was saved through counseling and rehab treatment that helped him break a cocaine habit, you're onto something. In fact, Johnny is bright and charming. He and the staff got along so well that Johnny and his family have invited doctors to their home to celebrate the boy's twelfth birthday.

I suspect you've already whipped out your cell phone to invite Channel 4 news to cover the party, which will be held in a neighborhood project right smack in the middle of an area served by the outreach program.

Amid the birthday cake, the smiling faces, and the banter between Johnny and a nurse, it becomes clear how important your outreach program is in helping families come back from the nightmare of addiction.

Your organization is filled with stories, no matter what your field. The challenge is to find them. And that's not as hard as you may think. Your program directors and specialists are on the front lines every day. They see remarkable things they probably take for granted.

Joseph Barbato
© 2005. Excerpted from Attracting the Attention Your Cause Deserves. Excerpted with permission of Emerson & Church, Publishers.

Joseph Barbato is the author or coauthor of several books, two of which were featured on the Today Show. One of his previous books, How to Write Knockout Proposals, won a coveted Starred Review from Publishers Weekly. This article is excerpted from his latest work, Attracting the Attention Your Cause Deserves.
Topics: Communications