All Civic Societies need an ‘Elevator Pitch’

So, imagine the scenario. You have a chance encounter with someone who could help change your society’s fortunes for the better. They don’t know you and they’ve never heard of your society. You have their attention, they’re looking you in the eye, they’re ready to listen but you don’t have long. Fluff this moment and you’re history. What do you say that will capture their attention and make them want to learn more? This is where your ‘elevator pitch’ is vital.

Coined in the USA (hence elevator rather than lift), the idea behind the term is that, to succeed in business, you need to be able to encapsulate in no more than a few sentences who you are, what you do, and, most importantly, why the conversation should continue. As a lift journey can last as little as 30 seconds and even in the tallest buildings is likely to last no longer than around two minutes, you have to be cogent, articulate, and to the point. With luck, you’ll engage the attention of the person to whom you are speaking and they will be curious enough to want to learn more, to continue the conversation over coffee when you step outside that lift.

This sort of scenario isn’t that uncommon. OK, it might not happen in a lift, but it could happen at a business event, a networking opportunity, or just in the street where you bump into someone, and it can happen at any time. You need your elevator pitch ready and to be willing to use it at the drop of a hat.

When I first became president at Wakefield Civic Society, I had to represent the Society at all sorts of meetings and stakeholder events. Often, having introduced myself as the president of the Society, I’d be confronted with the question “What’s that then?” and it was clear that many people outside the Society’s own membership had never heard of us. Being asked this question so frequently really made me think about what the Society did and how best to describe it in the proverbial nutshell. Much to my surprise, and consternation, it was actually quite difficult to summarise the essence of the Society, its values and its activities in just two or three sentences, partly because, at base, the Society’s activities are centred on a number of different concepts.

Reflecting on the question and how to answer it also started me thinking about why anyone would actually be interested in what we do. How do you sell an idea and captivate an audience so that other people can see the value in what you do to the point where they actually want to engage with it and support your work?

I began by writing down the sort of things we do in bullet points, starting with the charitable aims described in the Society’s constitution. Like most civic societies, our principal interest is in the built environment. Our aims say that we exist to “promote high standards of architecture and town planning in Wakefield, to stimulate public interest in and care for the beauty, history and character of the area of the city and its surroundings, to encourage the preservation, development and improvement of features of general public amenity or historic interest and to pursue these ends by means of meetings, exhibitions, lectures, publications, other forms of instruction and publicity, and promotion of schemes of a charitable nature”.

That’s quite a mouthful! And if we go back to the elevator pitch, it won’t work because it’s actually a list of things: connected yes, but each part of that list conveys a different idea of what we do – and what if the person you are speaking to isn’t interested in architecture, planning or preservation and development? Even if they do express an interest, these terms have a wide range of possible interpretations and spin-off implications so it would be easy to get side-tracked while narrowing down the points on which you want to focus.

In the end, I decided to think about the value we add to the city and to find something which would (or should!) grab the attention of anyone with an interest in Wakefield. This is what I came up with: Wakefield Civic Society is an organisation dedicated to making Wakefield a better place in which to live, work or relax – or do business.

You may or may not like this – but it’s easy to say (and remember) and, sometimes with slight variations to wording, can be used in printed documents, on line and in presentations. In other words, the phrase has become part of our brand.

When I tell people this is what we are about, it piques their interest and, if they really do care about Wakefield, they quite naturally want to know more about us. Using this phrase tends to open up a different sort of conversation from the sort I used to have when I spoke of our charitable objects related to architecture, planning and design.

You might not think of your charity as a business but when it comes to marketing and branding, there’s nothing wrong with stealing a few ideas!