In our professional communication class, the order of the day was "the elevator pitch." Each student would have an opportunity to pitch their proposal to an "authority figure" (played by a classmate) in one to two minutes. The exercise jogged my memory.
In 1980 I postponed completion of my graduate program and moved to Lisbon, Portugal. I was initially hosted by the locally renowned surgeon, Dr. Antonio Pinto Teixeira and his lovely wife Luisa. They assisted me as I got my wings in the local scene. Through one of their contacts, I met another American who eventually invited me to share a leafy residence amidst the fruit orchards of Ameixoeira, a sleepy village in the hills on the northern edge of Lisbon.
It was in the Ameixoeira house that I had my first work, tutoring a couple young engineers in conversational English and business communication for the multinational carmaker, General Motors. That was quite the idyllic teaching situation, sitting in the garden at a picnic table under a massive plum tree, discussing topics in readings taken from The International Herald Tribune, Scientific American and other sources.
The fellows I tutored would typically arrive in a GM company car on two mornings a week, and sit with me for an hour and a half or so, then return to their jobs at the GM headquarters, twenty minutes away. Through them I learned that there were over a dozen such tutroials taking placing in various places throughout Lisbon, on the same regular basis as my own lessons. Even now I remember that at some point I had actually remarked to the guys that it seemed a bit wasteful on the part of GM, sending its staff members out for English lessons when an in-house program could address the same needs more efficiently. Little did I know then that I'd soon have a chance to make the same pitch to the head of GM.
That opportunity presented itself during a social gathering at the Pinto Teixeira residence. Typical of Portuguese parties, the wine was flowing freely. I'd had a few drinks and was feeling quite confident when someone alerted me to the fact that another guest, the rather gruff-looking, burly man in a tight fitting suit, was the managing director of General Motors.
While I'm not sure now when the thought occurred to me to approach the GM boss, I do know that I was unenlightened to the nuances of an act that I would later discover was called "the elevator pitch." Still, I knew how to articulate a problem clearly and concisely, and I realized that stressing the main benefit of the problem solution that I could offer for GM could also benefit me.
Some of the details of that long past interaction elude me today, but the gist was this: I walked up to the man and introduced myself as an American recently arrived in Lisbon. The guy seemed disinterested, busy with his wine, until I elaborated: I was tutoring GM employees in a program set up by the American School. The program itself, while effective for giving the young staff members a chance to enhance their English, was inefficient in that it was taking them away from their jobs for too long; it couldn't be cost effective because it was sending those workers out across Lisbon, in separate directions, in individual cars. Setting up an in-house program would accomplish the same goals at a more reasonable price.
The criticism pricked the boss's interest. He wanted to hear more: "Come out to my office next week," he said, " and we can talk about this."
Talk about it we did, and soon thereafter, and for the next few years, I was the sole language and communication skills trainer for GM de Portugal, working both at corporate headquarters and at the factory an hour north of Lisbon. That was a very rewarding way for me to support myself during my Portugal years, and it was the start of my interest in professional communication.
Some of you have also had experiences pitching ideas, whether in class, an elevator, a cocktail party or elsewhere. Feel free to share your experiences here.