When Anita Attridge worked in human resources at Merck and Xerox, she frequently kicked off job interviews with a standard request: Tell me about yourself. A striking number of applicants couldn't answer her coherently. "You'd get everything from, 'Where do you want me to start?' to their whole life story," says Attridge, who is now a coach with The Five O'Clock Club, a career counseling firm.
"People screw it up all the time," agrees Connie Thanasoulis-Cerrachio, a New York career coach who used to work in human resources at Merrill Lynch, Pfizer and Citigroup. "They think they should walk you through their entire résumé." Instead, Thanasoulis-Cerrachio, Attridge and other career and communications pros agree, job seekers should be prepared with a 15- to 30-second "elevator pitch," so-called because it should be so vivid and concise it could be delivered in the space of an elevator ride. [More from Forbes: How to ace your job interview]
How do you sum up your life's experience and job ambitions in 30 seconds or less? First of all, think about the benefit you can confer on the employer, advises Jane Praeger, a media coach who heads Ovid Inc., in New York City. "People are too apt to go in with a laundry list of skills—I can do this, I can do that," she says. "Instead, say, for example, 'I can make sure your employees are well supervised and motivated.'" Praeger's own elevator pitch? "I help people figure out what to say and how to say it, to get the results they want."
Thanasoulis-Cerrachio proposes the following strategy for crafting a pitch: Start by filling a whole page with what you would want to say to a hiring manager. Cut that down to half a page. Keep cutting until you get to a quarter page. Then pull out three bullet points that give a snapshot of your career. Thanasoulis-Cerrachio's pitch: "I spent 25 years on Wall Street heading up a staffing organization for Fortune 500 companies. Now I take those insider secrets and teach people how to run an efficient, effective job search." [More from Forbes: 10 things you need to do while unemployed]
Thanasoulis-Cerrachio, Praeger and Attridge agree that practice is essential. "Practice until it's as easy as saying your name," says Attridge. Always rehearse out loud, in front of a mirror, or to a friend or into a tape or video recorder. Force yourself to sound enthusiastic. Too often job candidates recite their pitches in a monotone or rush through them without passion. "Often the content is very good, but the delivery is so bad you don't hear it," Attridge notes.
Career coaches suggest preparing more than one pitch, for different audiences. Coach Win Sheffield recommends tailoring a specific one for each interview. "Develop your pitch with a specific person in mind," he says, and make sure it includes where you've been, where you are and where you're going. [More from Forbes: 10 ways to become more confident at work]
It's helpful to have a pitch designed to work in a social setting that doubles as a networking opportunity, such as a college reunion. In that kind of situation, Thanasoulis-Cerrachio advises, mix in personal details along with professional ones. For her that would mean something like, "I worked in corporate America for 25 years. I created my own business, and I absolutely love it. My husband and I built a home on Staten Island, and we just adopted a 180-pound mastiff." Then see what your conversational partner picks up on.
As much when you're selling yourself as at any other time, it's important to pay attention to your audience. "The pitch is no substitute for developing a relationship with a person," Sheffield notes. [More from Forbes: How to seal the deal after the job interview]