Why Every Photographer Needs an Elevator Pitch

Why Every Photographer Needs an Elevator Pitch

Sometimes 30 seconds can change your life. Has the following story ever happened to you?

So there you are. A photographer in search of your big break. Or to be more specific, at this particular moment you are simply in search of your ID as you dig through your pockets under the impatient gaze of the security guard. Finally you locate your driver’s license displaying your credentials as well as a photo of you from years ago when life was much simpler.  

You hand it over along with a friendly smile to convince the skeptical guard that yes, the much younger man in the photo has in fact turned out, much to everyone's chagrin, to look like you as an older man. You explain that you are in the building to visit your friend Lori, with an "I," who works in the building on the 30th floor. After wondering what it is Lori sees in you, the guard eventually hands you back your driver’s license as well as a guest sticker to affix to your jacket.

He directs you to pass through the gates towards the elevator lobby. You do, pretending to fasten the high school reunion quality sticker to the outfit you spent an hour to get just right before leaving the house, knowing you’re going to ditch the sticker at the earliest possible moment. There’s just no way to look suave with a big white “HELLO” sticker glued to your chest.

The elevator arrives. As you step into the conveyance, it suddenly dawns on you that thirty floors is a long way up. Your eyes dart to the elevator’s maintenance records posted as legally required on the wall. Hoping beneath your breath that whoever "A. Moscado" is was alert the day he did his permit inspection.

So wrapped up are you in your mortal safety, that you almost didn’t notice her when she stepped onto the elevator beside you.

You steal a glance at the stranger. Long enough to get an idea of her appearance. Not lingering so long as to break social etiquette for enclosed spaces. But as you go to pull your eyes away, they involuntarily return to her face. Hoping she didn’t notice your awkward double take, you quickly refocus your attention on the tips of your shoes. But the question still rings out in your mind.  Haven’t I seen her somewhere before?

No, it’s not the inception of a cheesy pickup line. She genuinely does look familiar. But why?

Then it hits you. This is Jane Thomas. The director of photography at Legendary Photos Magazine. You’ve been reading her magazine for years. You grew up with it. You’ve dreamed of having your pictures in her magazine. You’d kill for it. You’d…

It is at this point that you realize that during your realization, your eyes have drifted back up from your feet to Jane’s face and you have, in fact, been staring at her like a hungry bear for the last several seconds. Even worse, Jane has noticed it too, staring back at you with a look of confusion. Unsure if you are in need of medical attention, or if this is finally the opportunity she gets to use the mace she keeps inside her purse for just such occasions.

You immediately begin to rue the lack of windows in elevators. Were there to be one, you would certainly choose this moment to make a hasty exit. But without a feasible escape plan, you have no choice but to say hello.

Thankful that you appear, for the time being at least, not to be a psychopath, Jane returns your greeting. She explains that she heads the photography department at Legendary Photos and inquires about what brings you to the building.

This is it. This is your chance. The moment you’ve been waiting for. Your chance to tell your dream client what your do and exactly why they should hire you. The chance to set your career on fire. The perfect moment for your elevator pitch.

If only you had one.

Instead, you babble something so incoherent that in later recollections you won’t even be 100% sure you were speaking English. Whatever you said in those forty three seconds before the elevator reached Jane’s floor must not have had the desired effect as she exited the lift without so much as an exchange of business cards. You even started to regret your decision to ditch your elementary school name tag. At least then she might remember your name.

You finally reach the 30th floor and stumble towards the front desk. Sure you’re friend awaits.  But your opportunity has passed.

Don’t let this happen to you.

An elevator pitch, though short in stature, is absolutely crucial to your business toolkit. Whether in an actual elevator, an industry event, or stuck in a grocery store checkout line, being able to concisely and effectively communicate what you do and why you add value is essential to building your business. In the words of one of my favorite musical artists, Common...

Opportunity knockin’, he ain’t call before he came.

It is often said that the most successful people in the world aren’t necessarily those with the most skill, but rather those who are the best at seizing opportunities.

If we are fortunate to live long enough, we will all be presented with openings. Chances to advance our lives at take hold of our destiny. The chances can be scary. In fact, most people will be too afraid to try. They’d rather step off that elevator and wonder “what if” than stand tall, look Jane in the eye, and declare with the utmost confidence why they are the best person for the job.

But as artists, we are not content to live lives of quiet desperation. We face our fears. We let our voices be heard.

But how do you put into words what you’ve taken a lifetime to learn how to put into pictures? How do we translate a visual medium into an effective dialect? Much less do so in the time it takes an elevator to rise a few short floors.

Like most complex obstacles in life, the best way to address this particular hurdle is to keep it simple. While there are numerous step-by-step guides on crafting an elevator pitch, it all boils down again to a common refrain I’ve found can address a multitude of eternal questions. Who are you? What do you do? Why do you do it? What benefit does that offer to the world?

How do you you explain all of that in 20 to 40 seconds? Again, keep it simple.

My name is _____. I am a ___________ photographer based in __________. I create images for brands such as ________ that help them to _________.

Remember, this is a quick pitch, not an autobiography. You’re intention is to introduce yourself in a way that establishes your brand identity, peaks the listener’s interest, and encourages the potential client to want to know more.

"My name is Bob Sanders, I am a Boston based architectural photographer who creates clean and inviting images of buildings for real estate companies that help convey warmth to potential homeowners and increase sales."

"My name is Simone Simon, I am a San Francisco based high fashion styled wedding photographer who makes every bride feel like a star on her special day."

"I’m Dave Connors, I run a Portland based executive portrait business. I create elegant portraits of business leaders that help to position them at the top of their profession."

These are obviously just examples. And while they provide the framework, it is just as important that you infuse your elevator pitch with your own voice. Like your images, your pitch is part of your brand. Is your brand strong and forceful? Humorous and light? More than just what you do, can you explain why you do it?

Like your portfolio, the more your elevator pitch speaks to who you are as an artist and your competitive advantage, the more effective it will be.

And speaking of, well… speaking.

Remember that your elevator pitch is intended to be spoken out loud. By a human. Not a robot. So, once you’ve crafted your brilliant verse, practice it by saying it out loud. Do the words roll off the tongue as fluidly as they read on paper?

I’ve even gone so far as to record my elevator pitch on video so that I could review how it sounds to a potential client. Not only is this exercise enough to confirm my decision to remain firmly BEHIND the camera, as well as provide a litany of blackmail material for anyone who might stumble upon my misplaced iPhone, but it is also invaluable in assessing my performance.

Like an actor preparing a monologue, the words need to be perfect without sounding perfected. They should sound as if you’re coming up with them on the spot. Even if you’ve rehearsed them a thousand times in front of a mirror and a bewildered Golden Retriever. And like an actor, it’s more important to connect to the audience and get the message across than it is to remember every individual word on the page. Memorize your lines and then forget them, allowing the result to flow naturally from your lips as if in relaxed conversation.

You may have only a moment to connect with the person who can help make all your dreams come true. Will you seize it? Or let the doors closes before your eyes, wishing you had known what to say?

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9 Comments

Justin Berrington's picture

Wish this had been written 2 days ago. I totally blew an opportunity yesterday to speak with Tommy Lee in a Ralph's grocery store as I passed right by him in the cereal aisle. He's definitely someone I would have liked to shoot a portrait of. I see a lot of celebrities where I work and always pass on saying anything to them simply because I don't want to bother them.

gabe s's picture

Always ask. There is power in the ask. Being real with them by saying "Hey, I am a photographer, would you want to do some photos sometime" without all the manager, marketing people in the way can get you a lot farther than you think.

Justin Berrington's picture

Man, you're so right. I know I've missed many opportunities in this same scenario. I've just got to be willing to take a no and hope for a yes.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Gabe is right. The worst that can happen is they'll say no. Go for it.

Jason Lorette's picture

Great article, definitely something to think about.

Rob Mynard's picture

Great idea that I'd never taken further than my own branding plans. How does this sound?

I'm Rob Mynard, I do rock-n-roll wedding photography straight outta Brisbane, Australia. We focus on real people and real emotions, for alternative couples looking to remember just how much their day rocked. #momentsovermountains

Christopher Malcolm's picture

I like it. You get straight to the point of what your work is all about. And I especially like that your last sentence brings it back to the benefit you are offering. Great job.

Thought it was a well written article and something everyone needs to have. Thanks Christopher!

Valuable lesson (reminder) in a very entertaining story!