Imagine you run into a senior leader in your organization in the elevator or while walking down the hallway. The leader asks, “What are you working on?” You could say, “Oh, you know me, I’m keeping busy” or perhaps “I’m working on a few new projects” or even “I’m making great progress on my project working with [insert department name here].” While all of these responses support the small talk many of us partake in during chance encounters in the workplace, they would all represent missed opportunities to talk up your current project and potentially garner additional leadership support for your improvement work.

The elevator speech is, at its core, a tool for socializing the work (planned or in process) of your improvement project team. The term elevator speech refers to gaining unanticipated access to someone to whom you would like to sell an idea or proposal. Typically, the person to whom you gain access is an influencer. The influencer is typically an executive, leader or key stakeholder within your organization whose support of your improvement work would benefit the project. These benefits could come in the form of resource support, barrier removal, or the support of project communications and change management efforts.

An elevator speech done well should communicate the core elements of an improvement project and outline the need for change – all in 60 to 120 seconds.

The History of the Elevator Speech

Where did this concept of the elevator speech get its start? There is debate in the literature about the origins of the elevator speech. A few of the theories floating around about the history of the elevator speech include the following.

  • The elevator speech term grew out of the studio days of Hollywood where screenwriters would catch an unsuspecting movie executive in the elevator and give them their pitch for the next great film.
  • The term comes from the early days of the internet startup boom when entrepreneurs needed venture capital funding to get their businesses off the ground. Lore has it that the companies most likely to secure funding were those that had a simple pitch and could clearly explain their proposal. The elevator speech was born as a way for startups to stand out from the stacks of applications venture capital firms were reviewing for funding.
  • The elevator speech literally has its origins in the first sales pitch for emergency elevator brakes, an innovation developed by Elisha Otis who was the founder of the Otis Elevator Corporation. In 1852, Otis constructed an elevator in the middle of a conference hall, hoisted himself up, cut the cable and successfully demonstrated the function of the emergency breaks for elevators to the audience.
  • Quality control expert Philip Crosby, the author of The Art of Getting Your Own Sweet Way, believed that all quality improvement leaders should have an elevator speech prepared to share the benefits of their approach to quality should they find themselves in an elevator with an executive.

No matter which elevator speech origin story strikes a chord with you the common themes amongst them all stand out. A well-prepared elevator speech allows one to capitalize on the unexpected opportunity to pitch your project to an influencer in your organization in a concise and impactful way.

Building Blocks of an Elevator Speech

  1. Outline the need for change and its urgency.
  2. Clearly define the goals of the improvement project.
  3. Touch briefly on the types of stakeholders or departments involved in the work.
  4. Incorporate information on current project status or progress.
  5. Include details on why the project is important to you personally.
  6. Expand to include information on why the project is important to the organization more broadly.

Examples of Elevator Speeches

Example 1: Emergency Department Door-to-Doctor Time Improvement Project

Our average door-to-doctor time for patients seen in the emergency department (ED) at Community Hospital is 52 minutes, which is much higher than the benchmark performance of 30 minutes by peer hospitals. Additionally, there have been patient complaints regarding wait times in the ED; we have seen an increase in the number of patients who are leaving without being seen, increasing from 2.2 percent to 5.3 percent of visits in the past six months.

We are pulling together an interdisciplinary team with representation from ED physicians, nurses, and staff in addition to patient representatives with the goal of reducing our door-to-doctor time in the ED to an average 30 minutes or less.

This project is important to me because as a triage nurse I see the stressful impact of the wait times on patients and families every shift I work. Over 30,000 patients a year receive care in our ED and they come to our hospital when they are in need of urgent medical attention. I want to make sure they have an experience that matches the quality of care I know we provide.

This project aligns with Community Hospital’s focus on patient flow this fiscal year. The ED is an entry point to the hospital for many of our patients and making the initial touchpoint more efficient can help support broader patient flow initiatives.

Example 2: Surgical Specialty Clinic New Patient Access Improvement Project

The time from new patient referral to appointment with a surgical specialty physician at Community Medical Group is 29 days. Peer organizations providing similar levels of specialty care are providing access for new patient referrals within 14 days. We have examples of patients electing to receive care elsewhere due to the long wait times for an appointment and we are seeing low patient experience scores for access, which are currently averaging 46 percent satisfaction.

An improvement project team with representation from clinic stakeholders including scheduling, providers, nursing, clinic flow staff and the referral coordinator has kicked off a project with the goal of reducing the time from new patient referral to surgical specialty appointment to 23 days or less to begin moving us closer toward benchmark performance.

This project is important to me because as a surgeon I want to ensure that new patient referrals have timely access to being seen in our practice and assessed for potential surgical needs. I also want to ensure we are meeting the expectations of both our patients and our referring providers for timely access.

This project aligns with Community Medical Group’s strategic goal to reduce the time from new patient referral to specialist appointment to 23 days or less by the end of this year, which represents a reduction of about 10 percent from last year’s organization-wide performance of 26 days.

Development Tips for an Elevator Speech

  1. Keep it simple: Short and to the point is the key to success with your elevator speech. It can be tempting to try and include a lot of information about your improvement project because you and your team members are subject matter experts on the topic. After you draft your speech, review it, practice on a team member and challenge yourself to make it more concise.
  2. Watch out for the desire to include a solution: This is something to watch out for those initiating any DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control) improvement effort. It may be tempting to share the problem and then propose how you may plan to solve it in your elevator speech. This is not advised, especially in instances when your project team has not yet made it to the Improve or Control steps.
  3. Do not jumble the speech with jargon: Steer clear of incorporating too many acronyms or references that your audience will not be familiar with. If you decide to incorporate an acronym or uncommon term make sure you define it so you do not leave people confused.
  4. Incorporate data: Being able to highlight a gap between current performance and the project goal using data can help to give your audience a clearer picture of the need for change and its urgency.
  5. Keep the goals within reach: It can be tempting to share with a leader that you are shooting for the moon because it sounds impressive. Work with your project team to set rational goals based on benchmarks and current state data, and incorporate these goals into your elevator speech.

When to Use an Elevator Speech

When should improvement leaders and project teams use an elevator speech? Early and often is the answer here. The elevator speech can be a powerful component of an improvement team’s communication plan.

Improvement leaders can consider incorporating the drafting of an elevator speech as a team activity in one of the initial project meetings after the project charter has been formalized. The elevator speech can provide a nice framework to open up discussion about the project topic and get team members thinking about how they would discuss their work on the project with others. Once the team has a draft of the elevator speech completed you can have team members test it out on each other and then assign homework for team members to test the speech out on peers and colleagues in their area to refine it.

One important note to share with improvement team members about the elevator speech is that it is not meant to be read word for word as if they are reading off a teleprompter. The aim is for team members to use the themes and facts incorporated in the draft team elevator speech and make it their own. Some of the most impactful elevator speeches arise out of staff personalizing the components of the elevator speech – focusing on why the project is important to them personally and for the company as a whole.

Next time you find yourself in an elevator with a senior leader from your organization, make the most of it by testing out your elevator speech using these tips. Do not be afraid to turn a chance encounter into an opportunity to drive engagement and support for your improvement efforts.


Hawkes, B. (2017, January 16). Why You Need an Elevator Speech. Retrieved from

Jensen, MG. (2016, September 30). Three Guesses to the History of the Elevator Pitch. Retrieved from

Pagana, KD. (March 2013) Ride to the Top with a Good Elevator Speech. American Nurse Today 8(3). Retrieved from

Westfall, C. (2013, May 30). The Origins of the Elevator Pitch. Retrieved from

Wilson, G. (2012, November 25). The History of the Elevator Speech. Retrieved from

About the Author