WHPRMS November Blog: Should You Use the Elevator Pitch Or Tell A Story?

I recently had the opportunity to represent my employer at a booth during the Wellness of Wisconsin’s annual conference in Madison. More than 60 vendors were in attendance, trying to gain the attention of more than 500 conference attendees. Conference organizers had invited my company, and two other nonprofits, to participate in the event.

The day of the event we were told that attendees would be asked to stop by our booths, learn more about us, and then vote on the nonprofit they felt most deserving of the sponsor prizes. First place would receive $1,500; second place $800; and third place $500.

While the prize money is a nice gesture, the real fun was figuring out what I would say to people about the work my non-profit does that would result in votes! Should I use my 45-second elevator pitch?

“Journey Mental Health Center helps people live in recovery from mental health and substance use disorders. We’re the largest providerfor Dane County and surrounding communities, with 400 staff members serving 12,000 people yearly in 28 programs spread over 10 locations. We are the safety net for people with high needs and low ability to pay.

 Journey has three divisions in its continuum of care: Emergency Services, including a 24/7 Suicide Prevention Hotline and two mental health respite centers;  Community-Based Services that help people with serious mental illness live in the least restrictive environment possible – our neighborhoods; and Clinic-Based Services, where we offer individual, group, family therapy and primary care services.”

Would that short elevator pitch, or any elevator pitch, generate votes?

I’m not so sure.

I decided I’d rather take a little more time, and tell a story that depicted what Journey is all about:

“Have you ever seen someone on the street acting different? Maybe they look disheveled? Homeless? Have you ever wondered what their story is? If so, let me tell you about Peter.

 If you lived in Madison a long time, you might have seen him sleeping downtown on a bench. But he wasn’t always living on the streets. In the 1990s, Peter was working toward his Ph.D. in microbiology at the University of Wisconsin when he had his first psychotic episode, likely due to the incredible pressure he was under at the time. He ended up dropping out of the program, but still had his master’s degree so he was able to land a well-paying job. He was, by all accounts, successful. No one, even Peter, knew he was living with serious mental illness until his symptoms worsened and as a result, he lost his job. Yet Peter was determined to work and landed another well-paying job at a high-tech company. Similar to before, he was a success. That success didn’t last long as his symptoms came back. He eventually left the job.

 For the better part of two decades, Peter drifted between homelessness and jail. It was an unbelievable tailspin for an educated, bright young man such as Peter.

 Thankfully, Peter found Journey’s Yahara House program and his life changed again … this time for the better. Yahara House is a day program for people living with serious mental illness, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Staff helped him regain his life with new medication, work and social interaction with peers.

 Today, Peter helps kids – ages 15-25 – manage their lives after they experience their first psychotic episode, in Journey’s PROPs program.

 Peter’s story is one of thousands of miracles – some big, some little – that happen every day at Journey.”

The story is more vivid, compelling, emotional and meaningful than the elevator pitch, right? People at the booth were engaged, nodding their heads, listening with intent, and telling me their own stories of loved ones battling mental illness. They were also asking questions about services we provide at Journey. No one was looking at their watch, thinking of an excuse to leave.

Now think back to how an elevator speech would have been received. Ho-hum. It likely would have gone the way of the dodo bird: extinct and forgotten.

Health care marketers have long used storytelling in ads and media pitches. But let’s not forget the other venues where we can use them: in speeches, during PowerPoint presentations, and yes, even at booths.

Elevator pitches have their place, but I think storytelling is an effective tool that should be used at all levels in an organization because that is what moves people toward asking questions and taking action.

Storytelling works.

Mike Wiltse is associate director of communications at Journey Mental Health Center in Madison.