On the “elevator pitch” and why I won’t do it.

I’ve been asked to give a talk this week, about what our business does, and tell our story, in under 2 minutes. It is stressing me out no end.

Yes, me. Queen big mouth. heh.

Not because I’m afraid of speaking. Anyone who knows me knows that isn’t true.

It’s because I am supposed to put my story up there, for the scrutiny of strangers, and do it in no more than 2 minutes. My story, which for those who don’t know me, is intrinsically linked to Kintsugi. It’s personal. It’s a name which comes from my own pain, that now needs to be sanitised, for public consumption.

In retrospect, that was probably a mistake, but… moving on…

I’ve been told that, in this talk, I need to explain what I do. I’ve been encouraged to be vulnerable. To distill 25 years of expertise and experiences to strangers. Tell them how I have worked hard to build a strong personal brand — so much so that, ironically, I really don’t even need to be there, because I like the clients we have, we have a nice stream of new ones, and we are doing okay… but because I am trying to grow and get investment on a platform we’ve built, I have to get over myself and do this thing.

But I can’t say that.

The truth behind Kintsugi is that both I and the business are built out of a bunch of broken pieces. In order to tell my story, I need to tell strangers about how I have overcome a lot of adversity, had failure after failure, and each time being repeatedly and completely shattered — but ultimately rebuilding each time. And, that despite being one of the biggest brains in the business… have only finally started to see any success, 15 years later.

I need to tell them that every single day, I still panic and can’t allow myself to enjoy our wins too much, because I keep wondering when the rug is next going to be pulled out from under me, and I end up right back where I started, with absolutely no safety net — and tell them that they should invest in me because I have failed before, and there is no way in hell I can let myself go backwards one more time, because not only will I never forgive myself if I lose their money, I’d probably break for good.

I can’t exactly say that, can I?

To do this talk, my story needs to be depersonalised and repackaged in a way that is safe for others to hear, but is ultimately inauthentic, only to then be picked apart like a day-old roast chicken.

I need to try and articulate in 2 minutes, a 25 year journey that resulted in a career, and perspective, that is unique, and interesting, and has broken the mould in so many ways that they need more than a few minutes. This is not because I see myself as special, but because I have participated in, dabbled with, and experienced every single part of the digital revolution and have real things to say about it, and am more interested in that, than in selling you my shit.

I not only deeply understand the internet and the digital industry in a way that leaves most people in the dust, but I have lived it. Sacrificed for it. Bled for it. Suffered because of it. Built parts of it. And, unlike so many others in our business — I actually respect it.

I’ve been pressured to conform, to behave, told to be nice and mansplained about “how business works” every step along the way. Often well-meaning, and from people I love and respect. I know they’re trying to help.

It’s ultimately quite upsetting, because even though I have a chance to talk about us, ultimately, I realise that none of my story matters, beyond being fodder for 2 minutes of talking… because it’s all supposed to be wrapped in an elevator pitch, where I talk about the concept of Kintsugi like it isn’t deeply personal. Like I don’t cry and get hurt when we disappoint or lose a client. Like I don’t get very angry on their behalf when they’ve been burned by another agency and have to clean up the mess. Like I am not someone who has worked harder than most to get here. Like I am not hurt and offended that there are people in positions of power, who can’t show interest in another person for more than a minute unless they can make a buck from it. Like I don’t think it’s fair that those who can’t (or won’t) diminish themselves with a superficial slogan or hook or be “on the sell” at all times, are somehow not doing business the right way. Like I don’t know that being a woman compounds this issue tenfold, lest I be called crazy or aggressive or bossy or emotional.

The pressure to conform in this situation, and just phone this in, is immense.

I’m constantly told by others that I am supposed to care what others think of me and my business, when, in reality, I don’t… beyond me, my team, and my clients.

I keep being told that there’s a right way to do business, and that my story and perspective, because it is different, and at odds with common wisdom, is somehow the wrong way, even though we have clients other agencies would fall over themselves for… purely because I don’t try to pitch to them.

If there were actually a right way to do business, let’s be honest, more people would actually succeed at it.

Which leads to why I don’t have an elevator pitch.

I’ve never needed one.

I’ve never wanted one.

I keep feeling pressured to have an elevator pitch, and “tell me what you do in 30 seconds”, and I almost cave, every single time. People with different stories, life experiences and resources tell me ‘how it is’, and, my confidence gets rattled, every time.

But I can’t do it.

It’s just not how we work.

The comedian’s comedian.

I liken the ‘elevator pitch’ to people who, when someone says they are a comedian, say “go on, tell me a joke, then!”, and try to make the comedian prove to them that they’re funny.

They wouldn’t know a good joke to save their life and, frankly, you’re wasting your time with them.

This is why I find it so perplexing that this “elevator pitch” is a thing, and is uncritically accepted by so many.

The burning question is: why, on earth, do you want to please people who can’t show interest in others for more than a few seconds?

In any other context, people who do that are considered rude. They’re a dick. I most certainly don’t want to work with them. They’re the same people who will rip people off and then say “it’s just business, it isn’t personal”, like somehow, being in business excuses shitty behaviour.

There are comedians who try to pander to the masses and that’s fine. They can do the one-liners and the tweets. They go on panel shows, and sell arenas — at least for now — but they are only as good as the next joke, and often lack substance.

The reality is, that they will have to ‘nyuk nyuk’ their way through their career, and as a result will always be at the mercy of the most fickle audiences. Or, in the case of business, the hardest customers to please, the cheapest customers, the ones who are always offended and shopping around.

That’s a fine living, but it’s not a very dignified one for those who “get” comedy.

The comedian’s comedian is the one who only plays to their die-hard fans or the respect of their peers. They are a different breed. They don’t care what the masses think they should be doing. They make a living, and may or may not have mainstream success, but that isn’t their motivation.

The comedian’s comedian is unapologetic about refining their craft. It’s based on a theoretical foundation, but they always make it their own. The joke is either good or not good — not measured in units of time. In fact, the best comedians often distort time and captivate you so that you don’t notice how much has passed. They are motivated by the story, the love of the craft, the highs and lows, the process, the perfect arc, and having an entire room, even if a smaller crowd, in fits of laughter over something they crafted with precision and after many years of practice. All after failing, bombing and paying their dues.

In the case of Kintsugi, it’s all about striving for streamlined systems and beautiful digital experiences. The thrill of the bugfix, the problem solving, the sprint. The happy client whose day we made a little bit less stressful. We only work for those who “get” digital, appreciate us and how we are different, and care about what we have to say. There is nothing quite like the contagious happiness when a client recommends us to someone else.

If you don’t know what we do, then the only thing you need to know upfront is that I am not going to try and convince anyone of my value in 30 seconds, because not only have I earned the right to more time, if I am going to share my story, I will be giving it the justice it deserves. Our value is in what we do, how we deliver it, the people who love us, and, most importantly, how we have the long (and sometimes uncomfortable) conversations better than anyone else for a better result.

For this, I need to be able to talk and have you actually listen, and pay attention, and be ‘in’ on the joke. Naturally, I will do the same for you.

There’s nothing wrong with needing a longer conversation to show your value.

If you are delivering something complex, or smart, or sophisticated, you NEED more than 30 seconds. Not having an elevator pitch does not diminish you. It has its place in giving you focus about what you do, but I find pitches from people when I barely even know their name instantly off-putting, and I am not alone.

So, no, I won’t “tell you a joke”. I won’t dance for you. I don’t need to justify myself. I will, however, spend time getting to know you properly, and if I like you, I’ll invite you to my show so you can see us in action and decide later.

You might like it… you might not. It’s okay if it’s not to your taste.

We are the agency’s agency, and that’s okay. We are playing to the front and back of the room — not the middle — and that’s fine with me.

My story needs more time, and I’ll tell it on my terms, after you’ve bought those elevator pitches a few times, and realised that there’s not much of substance underneath it… and when you’re ready to make time to listen.

Originally published at https://kintsugi.com.au on August 13, 2018.

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