So, why are you running for office?
It’s astonishing how many candidates don’t have a well thought out, succinct answer prepared for that question. Oh, they usually think they have an answer but when put to the test, they don’t. Instead, they’ll tell you about when or how they got interested in a particular issue or which event or candidate motivated them to get into the arena. None of these things is inherently interesting to your listener (you’re not the celebrity host a reality TV show, are you?) and ultimately none of them provides the kind of answer that connects with most voters. (Even veteran candidates can fail this this test, sometimes spectacularly.)
Answering this question concisely and effectively is important for a few reasons. First, it’s something you’ll need to do over and over again during the course of a campaign.
- Whenever you address an audience.
- Every time you’re interviewed by a reporter.
- When you’re canvassing door to door.
- Every time you make a fundraising call.
Second, crafting a straightforward answer forces you to put your campaign in sharp focus. What are your priorities? (As the old saying goes, if you have ten priorities then you really have no priorities.)
Finally, a great answer earns you the right to tell the rest of your story. If you connect, your listener will stick around to hear what else you have to say. If you don’t, then it doesn’t matter how great the rest of your message is. Your listener will have tuned you out.
Clearly, it’s not something you can afford to ad-lib or leave to chance. You need an elevator speech.
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If that’s not a familiar term, here’s the concept: Imagine you’re staying on the 10th floor of a hotel and you’re on your way to the lobby. Just before the doors close, in steps the biggest political fundraiser in your state. If she embraces your campaign, you could find yourself with all the resources you need to win. But you’ve never met her and she’s never heard of you. In this scenario, your job is to get her interested in your campaign before the elevator reaches the lobby, no more than 30 seconds.
A great elevator speech is a painstakingly crafted distillation of your entire campaign. It focuses on the single most important thing that your listener needs to know about why you’re running and what you want to accomplish. It’s the Swiss Army Knife of your communications toolkit, something you’ll use over and over again in all kinds of different situations.
It makes sense, then, to give your elevator speech the attention it deserves:
- Write it out.
- Memorize what you’ve written.
- Practice it out loud.
- If you can, get a skilled advisor to listen and critique.
- Notice what engages your listeners and modify your speech accordingly.
If you’re doing all the things you ought to be doing as a candidate (i.e. knocking on doors, talking to local groups, making fundraising calls), you’ll wind up using your elevator speech repeatedly. In fact, you’ll probably get sick of hearing yourself deliver it. When that time comes and you find yourself tempted to go “off script,” I hope you’ll remember the words of Frank Luntz, probably the greatest political communications specialist of our age:
There’s a simple rule: You say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and then again and again and again and again, and about the time that you’re absolutely sick of saying it is about the time that your target audience has heard it for the first time. And it is so hard, but you’ve just got to keep repeating.
If there’s a single indispensable tool for every political candidate—especially first time candidates—a solid elevator speech is that tool. It will make you a more confident, more effective candidate. And it will earn you the right to tell the rest of your story.
George Colombo is an author, entrepreneur, and activist. He provides consulting and content creation services for small businesses, nonprofits, and political candidates at williamsburgconsulting.com.