The Art of the Elevator Speech for Visual Artists

The Art of the Elevator Speech for Visual Artists

the Art of the Elevator Speech for Visual Artists

The first few seconds online and offline…

They say first impressions count and that’s certainly true when you walk into an elevator. I once met a very well-known celebrity in an elevator and completely crumbled into a blithering wreck. 

The celebrity in question was a superstar, a country and western singer who had, had more than a handful of hits and someone that even I recognised. Clue, he had a beard and sang with Dolly Parton. I’m not one at all for not keeping a level head whenever I meet anyone, but this guy must have thought I was on some kind of spectrum of weirdness as I pulled out a notebook and a borrowed pencil from IKEA and asked him for an autograph. 

It wasn’t even the fact that he was a superstar, it was down to me being so surprised that this superstar would even be within a thousand miles of this particular elevator or even town and it was just me and him. Together we would ride three floors lower, I don’t think the experience will ever spur him to write a song about it though.

Celebrities it seems do park their own cars, do ride in elevators, and don’t always have an entourage following behind and they visit regular towns and cities too. You can go years without seeing one out in the open and then suddenly you are sharing a metal container attached to some wire rope and heading towards the ground floor with a live specimen of celebrity standing by your side. 

I’ve seen and met big name celebrities a plenty over my almost half century. I even had to apologise to one when my wife decided to honestly critique his earlier show from a few years before. If you ever want your art critiqued, she really is up there with the best of them, honest and above all brutal is usually the order of the day. 

That particular experience was on board a cruise ship which made it really awkward when we would have to take a ride 14-floors to the pool together for the next couple of weeks. If nothing else, as a stand-up comedian he has no doubt been using some of that conversation as material for the past couple of years. The last time I saw him he was stocking up on Vodka from the on-board duty-free shop. I hope he didn’t develop a problem.

When it comes to selling your artwork you have to be prepared at all times. Whether it is in response to a comment on social-media or when you walk into an elevator, someone will see that pained look of please don’t engage with me on your face and they will do the only thing they can, they will engage with you. 

Oh and I know you press the elevator buttons repeatedly as you try to get the door to close faster if you are the only person riding and then you pretend to press the open door button as a stranger tries to get in.  All they can see is the gap closing and you mouthing the words sorry. If you’re going to do that, try not to smile as you say it because it’s a dead giveaway and we all know.

Elevator speeches are just that. They are speeches that can be had between floors in an elevator or that’s one version of the meaning that history throws our way, depending on which version of the story about how the term elevator speech came about you believe.

One story tells it as originating from the very first demonstration of an elevator with a safety brake system after previous elevator’s hoisting ropes would often fail. That was in 1852, and Elisha Otis is believed to have invented a safety system for elevators that would prevent an elevator from plummeting but he was unable to drive much interest in his invention until he organised a demonstration in New York City. He stood in the elevator and his assistant severed the hoisting ropes and the safety brake engaged preventing his almost certain death. 

The other story is somewhat boring by comparison and it is that the term elevator speech originated from finding yourself in an elevator with a renowned CEO and having one-minute to pitch your idea, or about the average time it takes an average lift to reach all floors. 

After my experience with Kenny, a pre-prepared elevator speech is an essential tool in my toolbox these days. In fact I have one prepared for most occasions including one just in case I ever bump into Jennifer Anniston and have to share a ride with her. I did bump into her at a restaurant once but we never spoke. Wonderful actress, I digress.

Why we need to pre-prepare…

Not only will having an elevator speech pre-prepared save you from looking like a complete fool, it can be really useful. In the past five or six years I have sold a number of artworks following on from very brief, ‘this is what I do, this is who I am’ speeches. 

Think of it more along the lines of a pop-up pitch. If someone asks what you do for a living or maybe mentions that they have heard you are an artist, or if they just say “wow, the weather sure is nice today”, you need to be able to respond in a way that could open up a sales channel. 

Now that’s not to say that someone talking to you about the weather is going to lead to a sale, neither will the fact that they know you are an artist, but the art of the elevator speech is to introduce the person to you, and for you to tell your story and just as importantly listen to theirs. 

The key to elevator speeches is that they are more of an art than a science and they won’t always work. To get the most from these rapid pitches you have to have an idea about who you are talking too and you also need to know when to back off and when to chase. That comes with experience, knowing how to turn a conversation into a sale is difficult and not a natural way of communicating.

I have found more and more that many of my new customers and increasingly my older customers too, are often more interested in the ‘why’ behind my company than the products or rather the art that I sell. Millennials especially are increasingly interested in the greater purpose of a company, not just what a company sells. This is why I focussed heavily last year on making sure that you use social-media to tell a story when you are marketing your art. That story could be about the artwork but often a story resonates with potential clients much more if you focus on people. 

So when it comes to an elevator speech/pitch, call it what you will, the focus really should be on how to convey your story or your art’s story in as short a time as possible. All too often these days’ people have only a finite amount of time in between doing other things. Making snap decisions often within a millisecond or two to stop scrolling and read a particular article on social media, or running from meeting to meeting. No one has time for anything anymore especially if they don’t immediately connect with what they are being told. 

Never have I noticed this more than when I was due to catch a train recently and found myself for once with twenty-minutes to spare before departure. As I sat sipping a flat-white coffee I noticed a young gentleman asking people if they would like a voucher. Turns out the voucher was for a free coffee but no one stopped to even ask what it was for, they all busily brushed past and spent the next 20-minutes looking at the departure boards for an announcement about the delays. In ten minutes he must have asked more than a hundred people if they wanted a voucher, no one stopped. 

What was more interesting was that there happened to also be a young lady handing out free samples of moisturiser and everyone who walked past joined the queue to get their hands on the free sample. I was pretty sure that those at the back had no idea what they were even standing in line for but there they were. 

Was it because it was a young lady rather than the young gentleman perhaps? I don’t think so. It seemed to have more to do with the fact that a physical sample was being handed out and which was probably only worth about 5% of the cost of the cup of coffee if that. It became more obvious because no one at the back could see who was handing what out, but there was a sign saying free sample today. People wanted some immediate value it seemed, me, well I just wanted the coffee. The pitch wasn’t there by just handing out vouchers, but that sign made a difference and I guess to an extent the number of people queuing did too.

That told me so much about the way the world seems to operate today and it told me that making an impact as soon as possible made all the difference. It also told me that you have to be seen to be confident, something my new found friend offering free coffee vouchers didn’t come across as being at all.

When posting on social media you have milliseconds to make an impact and when face to face you have a little while longer, but not by much. In my day job I often hear pitches and if something doesn’t grab my attention immediately I’m pretty much the same as every one of those people who walked past the coffee promoter, I move on. I try not to do this but the reality is that I just don’t have the time and I hear a lot of pitches. 

Walk up to me with confidence and engage me quickly and you’re more likely to hook me for the next 30-seconds, but if you want to extend that time then you’ll need to build up a meaningful connection and get your point across with some impact and you need to do it quickly. That’s not because I don’t have time for anyone, I do, but I don’t have time if it isn’t going to lead anywhere. 

If your pitch is good then you won’t need more time, you just need to be more effective at communicating. Much has been made of the research around human behaviour and interactions over the years but more recently there has been a focus on the research which has often concluded that humans attention spans have dropped to around 8-seconds and that an impact has to be made in the first seven seconds to stand a higher chance of success. 

How we prepare…

Being prepared is knowing not only what you are going to say but knowing your market too. This is where those analytics I keep talking about can come into play. Getting the information about who your audience and key markets are is the absolute first priority for any artist.

If you study the data from tools such as Insights on Facebook or Google Analytics if you have a website, that data will form a picture that will start telling you who your audience are.  It’s not all online though, if you are exhibiting at a show you do need to pay particular attention to who is stopping by and who is buying. I can’t ever stress this point enough, if you don’t have the first clue who your market is, you’re not going to sell a thing let alone a piece of art.

Assuming you now know who your audience and market are, you can start working on what the elevator pitches you will use will need to say. 

Having a simple one line explanation of who you are, what you do and what you are about is as good a place as any to start. You need something that introduces the concept of you and your art and you ideally need to turn that introduction into a question, remember you only have seconds, so getting immediate engagement is critical.

Because you only have a short time to deliver an effective elevator speech you will also need to cut out the fluff and keep some information out of the speech entirely. You need to work out what is a feature of what you do and what a benefit is of what you do. 

In any pitch whether it is an elevator pitch or not, separating the features and benefits out and knowing when to focus on each is a fine line that one drawn, will help you gain a much better perspective on your marketing efforts and methods.

So let’s break down the differences between the two. You might only ever paint on the finest canvases that are acid free, so it becomes a feature of the product which make the artwork more durable over time. A benefit is that the artwork won’t fade quickly and will hopefully last for generations meaning that the client won’t have to worry about replacing the work over time. 

The benefit therefore becomes the reason your customer should buy something, the feature is what they are buying. So focus on the benefits and leave the features for later. People want to have a reason to buy something and they want to know what the benefit is to them. They might then go on to look at features especially if they are making comparisons, but on the whole people care more about what is in it for them. 

Things are moving quickly and seconds are ticking away, and within your 30-seconds to a minute you also need to make time to listen to whoever you are pitching to. If the pitch isn’t going so well it is time to cut off and move on and let your potential customer go on their way, but if you know that they are eager for more, that is the flag that tells you to keep going. By listening carefully you will soon be able to recognise the signals for each, in time, and with practice.

People also look for something we call social-proof and again this is something we have covered right here on this site before when I have spoken about building up trust, engagement and relationships. This could be building up trust within a Facebook group before marketing anything at all, think of social proof as the currency of trust. 

In an elevator pitch it becomes slightly harder to get across in the time you have unless you convey the trust you already have within the story that sits behind your elevator pitch. Within that story you also need to qualify why the potential client should buy your work, so constructing a story that gives a potential client some added social proof perhaps by illustrating why existing clients prefer your art on high quality canvases might be worth adding in. 

Whenever clients ask me specifically about the canvas choices and the companies I use to print my work I have a pre-prepared answer that gives clients the confidence to know that the work won’t fade and that it will last for generations and that I only trust a few companies to use the right materials and who I know produce exceptional quality prints. 

What your story should never be is just a list of your best accomplishments, set the scene instead by giving an insight into how you solved a past problem. One of my past problems was that a company I once used to produce my prints for me decided to change the way they produced each work. They started to use lower quality inks and canvases to meet a lower cost point, and that meant that in time the prints would have faded much more quickly. By checking out other suppliers I was able to secure the quality and in fact offer better quality to my clients by finding another company to fulfil my printing needs and I was able to offer lower material charges too.

You need to make sure that your pitch doesn’t come across as overly technical. I could go on for days about the merits of choosing a particular paper or canvas type over another but no one wants to hear that. Most people will want to know that the art you produce will last, retains its colour, and is resistant to the environment in which it will be hung.

You are going to need to anticipate and be able to answer any key questions that the recipient of your elevator speech are likely to ask. For artists those questions might be around the medium you choose to use, or it could be about the subject within your works. 

For my latest seascape series there is a real focus on capturing the plight of the global fishing industry and that falling quotas are hampering the ability of those going out to sea and earn a living whilst at the same time maintaining their vessels. I intend the series to evolve into more ‘at sea’ works which depict the crew’s battles with the elements such as raging seas and brutal weather, risking their lives to catch these falling quotas, and to also encompass the very reasons why we are seeing falling quotas in the first place. Polluted seas, a decline in fishing stock more widely and the competition from other countries fleets operating in the same waters. This description alone would give people the general idea quite quickly and succinctly of what the works are about and how the series will evolve in time, and it will hopefully provide the hook that people need to come back and visit future works in the series. 

coffee break Challenge writing an elevator speech

Using the elevator speech in an artistic context…

How you use and when you will use an elevator speech as an artist will vary and you will need more than a single speech prepared. 

Sometimes the elevator speech might not be to a client at all but perhaps you happen to bump into a respected art curator who you know is currently picking out works for a new show. 

A curator will have the experience to know immediately if he or she should take you seriously from your initial introduction alone. The responses you give to curators can quite literally make or break art careers, you need to be confident and make sure that the curator gets the feeling that working with you would be worth his or her time and that they wouldn’t need to spend that time educating you about the art world.

Being confident in your elevator speech could spark the interest of this curator and get them to start asking questions, each one extending the time you spend with them. Having enough elevator speeches for any given situation is a must.

It could be that you meet a gallery owner at a networking event which might mean turning the sales pitch into a ‘you should really display my work in your gallery’ pitch. They might be interested in the fact that you have displayed your work previously and have plenty of experience, but they will also be interested in hearing that you have collectors who buy on a regular basis. 

When you formulate your elevators you need to consider what each person who might have any interest in you or your work wants but never try to put everything into a single elevator speech. There is no one size fits all approach to this, each speech needs to sound bespoke to the particular person you are pitching to. You might end up using that bespoke sounding speech a few dozen times, maybe a few hundred times but each time it will sound bespoke as long as you know which speech to use and when.

There is another similarity to social media here, pitching your social media posts to the nuances of each Facebook group you are a member of will give that feeling that you are taking time and making an effort to individualise posts specific to the group’s audience rather than taking a generic one size fits all spray and pray approach. It works the same with elevator speeches too, except that you have even less time to make that all important first impact on social media. 

Very few artists think about elevator speeches…

No one ever mentioned that you would also need to become a master of marketing when you decided to become an artist but this is the 21st Century and being a masterful marketer is absolutely what is needed today, even if you are represented by a gallery right now. 

Conquering the art of the elevator speech will open doors that would otherwise remain closed. You might be seeking funding, you might be selling your work, or you might just be making the pitch to build a higher following or make new connections, without having something pre-prepared for any given situation though will just mean that those doors are more likely to remain closed or at the very least will be more difficult to push open.

Get confident…

Some people don’t feel comfortable at all standing in front of a mirror and practising an elevator speech. Practising means that the speech will sound refined and will make you sound much more confident when it comes to speaking to someone face to face. 

Having the elevator is just as important as having an artist’s statement and just as you would prepare an artist’s statement, care should be taken in crafting it. There are some definite don’t do’s so let’s take a quick look at those.

  • Nothing overly technical should be included
  • No long stories, 30-60 seconds is your upper limit
  • Keep any irrelevant information out of the pitch
  • Nothing that requires lengthy explanation
  • Too much emotion, but you do need to sound passionate
  • No comparisons to other artists – your client will figure out this for themselves
  • No features, just the benefits. 
  • Just like social media you should ideally include a call to action but this should never be a directive or command, offer a business card and suggest they give you a call, visit your online portfolio or drop you a line if they want to find out more.
  • Nothing that makes you appear to be over-familiar 

And if you still haven’t prepared…

I get it, you would rather be spending time creating than talking to yourself in front of a mirror and practising these marketing skills, and if that describes you and you haven’t got anything prepared you might want to just try this and see if it makes a difference, just remember to change your name, or leave mine in and I will thank you later if it results in more sales for me!

Potential client: Hello, so what do you do?

Artist: Hi, I’m Mark Taylor and I am a visual artist. I produce seascapes, landscapes and abstracts* and have been doing this for many years, I have a number of collectors too. Here’s my business card which will take you to my portfolio where you can see what I have been working on for the past X number of years. 

I could talk all day about art and the work that I do but seeing it is better than listening to me, take a look if you have some time and drop me a line or give me a call if something catches your eye. I can always be reached on the number or email address on my card, or just get in touch and we’ll go for a coffee sometime.

*Change the subject to whatever art you create!

elevator speech for visual artists

The potential client might immediately ask a few questions in which case you will have part two prepared or they might just take the card and never do anything with it. It doesn’t matter, you made an introduction to someone new, you sparked a conversation and informed someone who didn’t know anything about you that you are a visual artist. Do this often enough and at some point someone might just visit your portfolio and get back in touch.

The potential client knows that you are willing to be approached in the future and you positioned yourself in a way that leaves an open door, a door that would otherwise have remained closed forever. 

Above all else you probably already have an elevator pitch, we use them all the time. Email subject lines invite people to open up an email, headlines in news stories invite people to read the story, it just needs to offer value, a little curiosity, and some specificity, in other words a hook. 

Never be pushy, only offer the pitch if you are invited, keep it short, and keep it in your memory. If you use it well enough it might just open a few more doors!

You will have noticed a couple of challenges this week, the first is to prepare an elevator speech in the time it takes to drink a coffee, and the second is to introduce that elevator speech into a conversation the next time someone asks what it is that you do! 

If you have a go, leave a comment and let us all know how it went! Good luck, start writing, and let’s all go and sell lots of art!

About Mark…

Mark is an artist and blogger who specialises in abstracts, landscapes, and seascapes but also carries out a limited number of commissions for book covers, posters, and personal commissions too. 

His work is sold in more than 150 retail locations across the USA and Canada including The Great Frame Up, Framing and Art Centre, and Deck the Walls and you can also buy from Fine Art America or his Pixels site here: 

All artwork and art collectibles sold through Fine Art America and Pixels also come with a 30-day money back guarantee. Any proceeds from the sale of art through Fine Art America and Pixels go back towards maintaining this site for the benefit of other independent visual artists and art buyers. You can also follow Mark on Facebook at: and on Twitter @beechhouseart


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