A Memorial Day Memory

If you’re anything like me, you woke up this morning with a different kind of weight on your shoulders. Many of us have lost family, friends or acquaintances in service to our country and the holiday that makes this a long weekend was created to remember their sacrifice. Over the course of my 26 years in the Air Force, I lost more than a few friends to flying mishaps of one kind or another. For whatever reason, I woke up this morning not remembering the pain of their loss, but of the joy they brought during the best of our days together.

I met Scott Trapp in flight school. He was one of those guys I thought would outlive our entire class, but he died in an F-16 on the 25th day of June in 1984. He was a mountain of a man who played college ball in Oregon and joined the Air Force shortly after getting his degree. Between his size and personality, he seemed to dwarf any room he stepped into. Gruff, thick-skinned and always on the offensive, Scott had an intimidating presence, but he was an absolute hoot to be around. He dated a gal named Bobette Birdwell and about midway through flight school, Bobette had us over to her house for a double date.

Bobette had a dog named Linus that was a toy something-or-other… more timid cat than a dog. Every time Linus made eye contact with Scott, he would start cowering… shaking as if it was about to keel over and die. Shortly after we arrived, Scott looked over at the dog, then up at Bobette and said “give me that dog for three days and I’ll make a MAN out of him…” Bobette kind of laughed and then headed out to the back porch to check on dinner. When she came back in, she looked around and asked, “Where’s Linus?” Scott said it so flatly that it was hard to fully process. “freezer.” Thinking he was kidding, two of us exploded in laughter but Bobette somehow knew better and ran straight for the kitchen. She jerked open the freezer door and, sure enough, there was Linus shivering away as Scott repeated his offer… “three days and I’ll make a man out of him.” Best as I can remember, those were the last words of our evening together, and their relationship… but I’ve never laughed so hard in my life.

I’ll never forget Scott’s sacrifice, but I hope I will never forget the incredible way he lived. My wish is that no matter where you are or who you’ve lost, when you hit your knees tonight, you’ll give thanks for the gift they gave us all – and for the joy they brought you during the best of your days together.

Handling Impending Doom and Other Day-to-Day Challenges

In every industry and in every walk of life people make mistakes. The organizational impact of those missteps can vary from mere embarrassment, to being so costly that they’re hard to overcome. What may be at least as important is how the rest of us handle the apparent failings of others.  Whether it’s a subordinate, boss, or a peer that makes the misstep, your initial response will become a permanent memory for everyone around you… and sometimes it’s better to take a moment to think a bit before you make that indelible mark.

Flying in-and-of-itself is not inherently dangerous, but it is terribly unforgiving.*  How you handle an aircraft in any given situation can lead to a variety of outcomes even when everything is running well. But when the weather suddenly deteriorates, a fire light illuminates the cockpit, or when a combat situation goes south, flying’s unforgiving nature can seem overwhelming.  My first instructor at flight school was an incredible man who doled out the kind of sage advice that was well beyond his years. One day in his heavy Portuguese accent he said “Veenable, the first thing you do in any emergency is to reach over to that worthless clock on the dashboard, find the stem and wind it. After that, you can figure out what to do next.  If the jet’s going to explode any moment, what could it hurt?  Every other situation you’ll face can be handled better with a little time to think.”  As silly as it sounds, every time I found myself in a precarious situation in the air, the first thing I’d do was reach over and wind the clock. The strategic pause it offers can be a godsend.

Chesnutt’s Miracle

Several years back I was going through fighter requalification training at a base near Phoenix, Arizona. One January afternoon there, two pilots in our squadron briefed a training mission for a flight in a two-seat F-16.  They preflighted the jet, taxied to the end of the runway and, in going through their pre-departure checklist, discovered a problem that forced them to abort the aircraft.

Time became a driving issue.  The bombing range was completely booked for the day but, if they got off the ground quickly, they would be able to complete the mission within their remaining range time. In their rush to preflight the second aircraft, Zulu (the back seater) overlooked a small step in his checklist.  The switch he missed controlled the sequence the two ejection seats would leave the jet if they were forced to bailout during flight.  It should have been set for the back seat to go first, followed by the front to keep the back seater from being burned when the front’s rocket motor fired. As fate would have it, the switch was positioned to enable either seat to eject the instant its occupant pulled the ejection handle.

They completed the remaining checks, taxied onto the runway, selected afterburner and began the takeoff roll.  Shortly after they got airborne, their engine began suffering a series of failures that shook the jet so badly that Apex couldn’t read the dials in front of him. The front seater (Apex) began a gentle left-hand climbing turn to point them away from a residential area should they need to eject. Within a few seconds the motor came apart, the jet began an uncontrollable roll to the left and Zulu belted out the commands “BAILOUT–BAILOUT–BAILOUT!”

I was at the operations desk when the piercing sound of their emergency locator beacon filled the front corridor of the building.  The maintenance radio crackled to life with the words “jet down on the north side of the field… I’ve got one chute.”  We all knew there should have been two.

What transpired during those few moments was surreal.  Both pilots pulled the handle at the same time and each went up the rail within milliseconds of the other. The next step in the ejection sequence fired a charge to blow off the top of the parachute housing on each seat.  Housing separation enabled another explosion that propelled the parachutes out of their respective canisters and into the slipstream.

When the front seat housing separated, it sailed back into the middle of the Zulu’s parachute just as it was beginning to open.  The impact collapsed the chute and left him with an unrecoverable streamer. Apex’s parachute deployed and brought his forward trajectory to a quick stop, but Zulu had nothing to slow him down.  Just as he began to fly past his front seater, his streamer snagged Apex.  Somehow, someway the cords that connected Zulu to his collapsed chute latched on to his front seater… and stayed there.  Two seconds after the command to bailout, both pilots were safely on the ground underneath a single canopy.

While it would be a while before they figured out what happened to the motor, it didn’t take long to determine what caused the ejection sequence failure. In combing through the wreckage shortly after the crash, investigators found the ejection control switch.  Every pilot has an unspoken fear they’ll make a mistake that will put another at risk, and it was now obvious that Zulu’s misstep could have cost both men their lives.   While Apex may have felt a little anger over what triggered his near-death experience, for whatever reason he never said a word.

The Findings

The flight data recorder from that jet was found intact and over the course of the next several weeks, it would reveal every aspect of the flight that afternoon – the throttle movements, engine responses, aircraft roll rates, altitudes, everything all the way from takeoff through aircraft impact. The ensuing investigation determined the jet was so low and the role rate so significant at the time of ejection, that if they had experienced the correct ejection sequence, two things would’ve happened. The back seater would have ejected normally and very likely received a good chute.  But, in the delay between Zulu’s seat separation and when the front ejection seat began to fire, the aircraft would’ve rolled to a point where Apex’s ejection motor would’ve propelled him into the ground. The back seater’s mistake that afternoon, coupled with a series of events so magical they’re hard to fully fathom did anything but threaten the life of the man in the front seat.  What had been so apparent immediately after the mishap would have infuriated the best of us – but if Apex had lashed out at Zulu after they found the switch in the wrong position, he would have left an indelible mark on the man who saved his life.

Mistakes and missteps will happen all around us, and while the repercussions and follow-on effects may seem apparent at first glance, the real cause and the realities beyond may take a long time to fully understand.  Before you react, take a moment to rise up out of your cockpit, reach over and wind that worthless clock.


*Captain A. G. Lamplugh, London, 1930’s

Letting Go

I’ve had the great pleasure of coaching Little League baseball for a dozen years and have found it to be and absolute gift to watch these young men grow year after year in both size and in their skill sets. As with all things, their growth has caused this aging dog to learn a few new tricks himself.  At the end of our 2012 season’s draft, I thought I’d done a pretty decent job in balancing our lineup but we wound up a bit short in a critical area – pitching. There were plenty of kids with great arms on the team and after looking at the lineup for a while, I came to the conclusion that I would have to pick one or two and nudge them in the direction of the mound. The two I picked had secretly wanted the opportunity and were more than willing to work at it. For the first several practices, we worked on mechanics and had the two throw with just a catcher and no batter present.  Over time we moved a man up to the plate, and then finally inserted them into the lineup during an actual game.

Almost comically, their pitching motions changed as we moved through each phase. In the outfield both boys were naturals whose fluid motions allowed them to launch a ball to home plate on just one hop.  When we put them on the mound, their motions changed ever so slightly, but the impact on velocity was noticeable. When we put a batter up in practice, you could actually see their motions contracting, and while they were able to put the ball over the plate, the speed had decreased by another measure. The pressures that came with the presence of family and friends during an actual game were more than palatable, and both struggled to get a ball over the plate…

During our next practice, I put them on the mound one at a time and told them to stop being so concerned with where the ball went–to let go of how they looked or who was watching and just throw it… As long as it hit the backstop I’d be happy. Magically, both reverted back to the fluid motion of an All-Star outfielder. When we moved a catcher back behind the plate, my coaching was limited to three words…“just let go”.  With that, we opened up a whole new world for these 2 young men.

As I was driving home that night, the words “just let go” continued to reverberate in my head. The thought had been a significant one in years past, and it actually took me a while to figure out where it all started. After working through a few dormant memories, my mind landed on a stroll through a fighter pilot’s bar just outside of Madrid, Spain.  Those kinds of establishments are known for their wall hangings and this one had more plaques and pictures than visible paint. As my eyes moved across the room, I ran across a plaque that brought a wide smile to my face. “A fighter pilot is not drunk so long as he can hold onto a single blade of grass and not fall off the face of the earth.”  As minds tend to do, mine wander into the thought of what it would be like if I were to do just that… to let go of the tether.  To release that single blade of grass and see where I’d end up.   And here I was once again wondering what was holding me back.  I mean if the pressures of peer and parental presence could so drastically affect the throwing motions of two boys, how was my own potential being held back by the paradigms, boundaries and the ever-present expectations of others? Don’t get me wrong; there will always be lines-in-the sand that shouldn’t be questioned. Stealing from another will always be a crime, and no matter how many times you try to get it right, socialism will never work… But the hesitancy, the constraints that are holding us back may be worth revisiting.

In 1971, my family was riding in our paneled station wagon the night the first Mohammed Ali – Joe Frazier fight was on the radio. My dad commented about how long each man had trained for this moment, and what kind of powerful dreams must have driven them to become the two greatest fighters in the world. He looked over his shoulder and asked me “what are you dreaming to be when you grow up?” Without hesitation, I told him I wanted to be a fighter pilot. He thought for a moment and said, “well son, fighter pilots need to be good at math and they need to have perfect eyesight.” It was the ideal conversation with just the right level of advice for 11-year-old boy to absorb. I sat back and began to think about what my father said… I liked math, but how do I keep my eyesight perfect?  At its most basic level, that meant you couldn’t wear glasses… Both my mom and my big brother wore glasses and both read books like there was no tomorrow. When my adolescent mind was done processing those two independent lines, I made the determination that reading would keep me from getting where I wanted to go – reading was bad.  As you might guess, that little line of brilliance still haunts me to this day.  While a therapist might help me blame it on my dad’s words, it was all in my interpretation.

How many times have we built constraints or hesitancy into the fabric of our lives over our internal framing of a single event, or a few well-intended remarks?  Think about what keeps you from going out and letting go on the dance floor, or belting out your favorite song in a karaoke bar… About your fear or nervousness toward speaking in public.  If you weren’t so self-conscious, what would you be capable of doing? When you think about it, being self-conscious has very little to do with what we think, and more of what we think others might be thinking about us – doesn’t it?

You already know what works, what kind of works, and what really doesn’t work well in your life and in the life of your organization. When something that’s not working is well-established and accepted, what would you be willing to do to move it into the next tier of performance? Are you willing to dance outside the lines and lead yourself or your team to something that really does work?  It will take a little courage and an absolute willingness to shed the weight that’s holding you back, but you can do it. Just let go…

Heroes Among Us


It was an evening in July of 1936 when 24-year old Ensign John Bulkeley boarded a Wilson Lines overnight steamer in Norfolk, Virginia bound for a long weekend in DC.  Decked out in his dress whites, he stepped into ship’s galley where he noticed several well dressed Japanese men seated in the center of the room.  The steward who seated him told Bulkeley they were with the Japanese Embassy and that the man in the center of the table, the one with the satchel on his lap, was actually the Ambassador himself. When Bulkeley asked how he knew so much about the group, the steward said they were regulars on the ship, traveling back and forth between DC and Norfolk several times each month.  He added that most folks believed they were spying on the US Navy. The ensign pushed back at the man’s statement and when he did, his knowledgeable attendant told him to make up his own mind… There was nothing of significance in Norfolk other than the Navy’s shipyard, and no one had ever seen that satchel touch the ground.  Whenever the Ambassador got up, it was always in his hand, and whenever he sat back down, it went right back in his lap.  Whatever was inside was awfully important.

Japan had been on the rise for several years.  Following their invasion of Manchuria in 1931, they amassed one of the most powerful deep-water fleets in the world and our Navy saw them as the next great threat to the United States. Bulkeley watched the group throughout dinner, even trailed the Ambassador to the men’s room and, just like the steward said, that satchel never touched the ground.

Convinced, he decided to take action.  He followed the group at a distance down a flight of steps, watched them enter their ward rooms, and then waited.   Shortly after 4 a.m., the Ambassador left his quarters for a visit to the bathroom without that prized brief case.   It was the chance Bulkeley had been waiting for… He darted in the room, grabbed the satchel and ran for the stairs.  Even before he got to the top deck, he could hear the Ambassador and his staff screaming at the top of their lungs and his mind raced through three sorted endings to the adventure.  Two would end with his arrest and the loss of the satchel’s secrets and, while the third wasn’t very appealing, it was the only real option left.  He jumped over the ship’s railing and into the dark of night.  It took him a day-and-a-half to swim to shore and get to a Naval intelligence facility.  Relieved, he handed that treasure trove over to those who knew would recognize the threat and mitigate the threat.  After inspecting the contents, a flushed Navy Captain emerged from behind a heavy door to tell the Ensign that he had made a big mistake and was in a world of trouble.

The repercussions began with his immediate posting to one of the oldest ships in the Navy; a coal burner in the South Pacific, but that was relatively easy to swallow. Everyone who knew Bulkeley – his superiors, subordinates, and friends alike would all turn with word of his actions. He was anything but a hero… he was a loose cannon whose meanderings had stained the reputation of the most powerful of the uniformed services – the US Navy.

In looking back, it’s hard to grasp the personal incentive behind his actions… If the satchel had been filled with plans of pending sabotage, and Bulkeley’s actions saved the shipyard from attack, diplomacy would cloak the incident and ensure the world would never know of his heroics.  If he had chosen not to take action, and on December 7th, 1941, Norfolk had suffered the fate of so many other major military instillations, no one would ever know he was the one who could have prevented that shipyard’s demise.  And yet he took action.

There are stories of countless opportunities in a growing roster of former organizational stalwarts where nameless individuals chose a different path. Organizations filled with the nation’s best and brightest like the Archdiocese of Boston, Enron, Arthur Anderson, Fanny May, Freddy Mack, and now Penn State.  Places where people knew the threat – the gross misrepresentations, endemic corruption or the presence of the worst of human predators, but those people lacked either the foundation or the wherewithal required to step up to the threat and take action.  In merely watching the events transpire, they avoided the promotion-killing repercussions so often associated with action.  They watched with the perverse hope that the falsehoods, pending failure, or the heart wrenching perversions wouldn’t rise to the level of public concern on their watch.  All the time comforted with the belief that, like Bulkeley, no one will ever know they were the one who could have stopped it all.

In taking action on that steamer in 1936, John Bulkeley thwarted any plans the Japanese may have had for an attack on Norfolk.  Not because the Navy warned the Japanese, or increased the port’s defenses – they didn’t.  Either the Japanese were never planning to attack that facility, or the loss of the satchel caused them to abandon those plans – we’ll never know.

By taking action, Bulkeley had no choice but to turn his fate over to the integrity and good judgment of his organization.  Global politics played a heavy role in the Navy’s handling of the follow-on repercussions, and politics surround every public entity.  It’s an unfortunate reality that most will choose to put corporate interests well ahead of the people within those teams – and that posturing sets a demarcation line that most will never cross. Which all too often leaves the fate of the innocent to the whims of the predator, and the path of the bold flanked by the most sickening form of scorn – the kind that comes from those who would never step into the breach for another.

Make no mistake about it, Bulkeleys are very rare, but they’re still out there. They rise to action knowing their failure to move would be well masked, and their action may be equally well punished, but they rise.  And they do it for the only palpable return most will ever receive – the unflinching image of the man or woman on the other side of the mirror.  Wherever you are and whatever you’re going through, here’s to you John Bulkeley.



The best leaders in any organization have four common traits: Talent, Energy, Presence and Chemistry. There other factors that influence success, but if we are talking about the big ones, it’d be hard to vote any one of these four off the island. The question is, how much do you need of each?  How much talent, energy, presence and chemistry are required to lead a team to its genuine potential… and which of the traits is the most important?

Perhaps the most gifted combat leaders in the air are the pilots who have graduated from the Air Force version of Top Gun – the Fighter Weapons Instructor Course.  These folks lead their respective squadrons into combat and, while that’s a huge responsibility, they are so much more than that.  They’re ringleaders.  The best of them directly shape two major parts of a unit’s capability… technical competence and team cohesion.

Because of its intensity, several factors came into play when we selected a pilot for Weapons School. The heady expectations in the air, coupled with the academic load presented a challenging environment, and not everyone got through. Those we picked didn’t have to be the best pilots in the squadron, but they had to be technically competent going in or they’d wash out in that first phase of training.  They had to be solid…  respected as much for their other leadership faculties as for their abilities in the jet.

Along with a gifted hands, they had to have energy enough to work long days improving the skill sets of those around them, and then spend the evenings and weekends refining their own. Not endless energy, but the enduring, uplifting kind.  They carried their peers forward in a way that made them want to listen and learn from them.  They had presence.

Presence is confidence personified… the kind that captures and holds the attention of everyone in earshot.  Presence allows leaders to whittle at the perceptions, emotions, and human faculties of their teammates.  It allows them to shape the team’s chemistry.

Catalysts are chemical accelerators that move people to action to better the whole, without altering their own foundation in the process.  They make the team spin tighter and faster, and put it on a trajectory for successes beyond optimistic whims… they lead them to achieve their absolute potential.

These traits are no different than those demanded by the upper ends of any profession and while that revelation is important, it still leaves us short on the answer of how much.  How much Talent, Energy, Presence and Chemistry does a leader need, to take their team to the far right side of its potential… and which of those attributes is the most critical to make that happen?

If you think talent or energy have the upper hand in the debate, then consider the differences between Terrell Owens and Kurt Warner. Owens was selected in the third round of the ‘96 NFL draft and holds several NFL records.  But he’s created a firestorm in every team he’s played for, and none of those organizations have captured a single conference championship while he was part of the roster.  Kurt Warner went undrafted in 1994, entered the league as a free agent, but would go on to capture 2 NFL MVP awards for regular season play, and led the Rams to a Super Bowl championship as its MVP.  Without question, leaders need talent to gain entry into your level of play, and energy to bring light to the team, but once they’re there other traits take precedence.

If energy and talent aren’t the separators, then let’s look at presence and chemistry. John Edwards and Ken Lay had talent, energy and the kind of presence that would light up a room, but the machinations of each altered their own chemistry.  Altered it in a way that would corrupt the entities around them and lead to the collapse of a presidential campaign and the demise one of the largest corporations in US history.

The greatest trait is a special kind of chemistry… the kind that allows leaders to positively accelerate the reactions within an organization without changing who they are in the process.  You’re looking for a catalyst.

In many people’s eyes, Tim Tebow doesn’t have talent worthy of a back-up QB at the NFL level. Delivery’s too slow, accuracy’s too sporadic, and he’s just not improving fast enough to be a contender for the critics… but watch this one carefully.  He may not have the upper ends of talent, but he’s got a boat-load of energy, the kind of presence that changes peoples lives…  and if you’re looking for a catalyst, he’s got a PHD in human chemistry.

If you’re looking to increase the performance and unity of your team… if you’re looking to take your organization to its full potential, then go for the catalyst – they’re game changers.

JV Venable TBirdOne.com


Assessing your Organization

How long has it been since you’ve taken a fresh look at your operation… a really unbiased look?  We all get caught up with the details and chores of making things happen, and if we’re not careful, that day-to-day grind can keep us from standing our organization up next to its long-term goals to make sure we’re on the right course. Getting into a position and a state of mind where you can actually see your business clearly is no small feat. Two simple ways of making that happen are getting away long enough to clear your mind, and bringing in an untainted set of eyes to take peek at your world and offer recommendations.

Association gatherings are great opportunities to get away from the grind and clear the mechanism between our ears.  There you can relax and put your mind to a place where you can generate new ideas, compare notes with peers or competitors, and then trot back home with a boatload of energy.  But unless you’re careful, the pile of work waiting for your return will consume most of your momentum.  Just catching up can muddy the clarity of your mind and steal away the energy you’ll need to ply any fine-tuning effort.  So lay the groundwork for success up front with a little pre-escape planning. Task and empower someone you trust to tackle your chores while you’re away.

Another alternative for getting a clear perspective on the trajectory of your operation is to ask a trusted set of unbiased eyes to stop by for an assessment.  Earl Nightingale told a story once of walking into diner in a small Florida town and being immediately recognized by the owner who asked him if he would be willing to look around and give him an idea or two on how he could increase the traffic in his restaurant.  After finishing his meal, Nightingale offered the owner a few nuggets of advice.  One specific recommendation was to add regional dishes and delicacies to the menu… red eye gravy, homemade biscuits and the likes that you couldn’t find anywhere else in that little town.  If he did that, he’d get an immediate increase in local traffic.  This was quite a gift – someone recognized for his innovative talents, offering the kind of unbiased advice that could give the owner a leg-up with his business.  All he needed to do was put the ideas in motion.  Even if you’re the sole employee of your company, having a trusted and unbiased set of eyes give you the once-over can save you a great deal of angst and anxiety on how your current efforts align with your long term goals.

Making even small rudder movements beyond to refine your course toward those long-term goals will demand a significant amount of energy and the best of your leadership faculties… but it all starts with an unbiased assessment.

Elevating Speech Primer


You are one of the brightest, most capable people within your profession and you’re at a point in your life where you need a break… a moment where you can convey your incredible faculties to a person who can help you get the job of your lifetime.  But what are the odds of running into a person who can really help you – and that when you do, you’ll be able to come up with the right words to knock their socks off?

Well let’s break the betting opportunities down a bit… what are the odds that you’ll meet a person who can genuinely help you over the course of a day’s mingling?  Much better than you might first think… as a matter of fact, those “targets of opportunity” are everywhere.  You just have to learn to recognize and engage them as they appear.

What are the odds of you belting out a concise stream of consciousness that will capture your target and get them to help you?   Before you answer that question, read on.

So what’s an elevator speech? An elevator speech is a well-rehearsed version of what you want a targeted individual to hear about you before they can leave or loose interest… It answers the question, “if you stepped into an elevator on the top floor of a building with someone you’ve never met and had only a few moments to describe yourself, what would you say?”  The situation puts you up against several hurdles… Elevator rides don’t last that long to begin with, so how will you use the time to convey your incredible gifts?  The second, and diametrically opposing hurdle is this person doesn’t know you from Adam and their minds may be craving white space… How do you plan to hold their attention long enough to convey what you do, what you want, and what a catch you’d be? Convey it to not just leave them enlightened – you want to leave them so inspired that they’ll go out of their way to help get what you want.

How long do you have?  Somewhere between 30 and 60 seconds… and you’d better speak like John Grisham writes if you press the right side of that envelope.

A killer elevator speech will, well, ELEVATE.  It’ll wrap your target audience up with your enthusiasm, and not only convey what you want them to hear, it will make them feel lucky they ran into you.  So fortunate that they’ll take your card and either 1)connect you with someone who needs somebody just like you or 2) want to know more about you for their own selfish company needs.

Not that challenging right?  I mean we can all generate a crafty line or two about what we’ve done – right?  But if you don’t think this one through, once you get past those opening jewels you’ll slide into a pregnant pause you just know will be a conversation killer.  So you’ll fill the gap with something like “well I used to do thatI’m actually between jobs”.  Unless you’re seeking sympathy at a bar, or talking to an employment agency, those lines will inspire your target’s mind to drift off to a place where the weather and the company are much more uplifting.

Your speech has to be well thought out, and well rehearsed – so well that it comes off like it’s not rehearsed at all… it just sounds like part of a conversation.  It needs to be positive from start to finish and NEVER include anything negative or that could be perceived as negative.  Wondering what you need to include in your pitch?

Key Elements:

  1. Your Name
  2. What you do (Your expertise)
  3. A single professional accomplishment that makes you light up to talk about
  4. What you’re going to do next (what you’re looking for)
  5. An emotional hook.  Passion!
  6. Your card

Before we go into the rationale for each line, let’s talk about who you should build your pitch for…or how familiar should you assume your target is with your line of work.  The odds of you running into someone intimately familiar with your specific occupation are not nearly as high as they are for meeting someone who knows someone in your line of work… Which means it’s much more likely you’ll be talking to someone who’s not intimately familiar with what you do.   Rule of thumb:  Use language anyone can understand, and step the complexity up ONLY after your target shows familiarity.   Imagine staying conscious for this:  

“Hi – my name is Abe Einstein and I’m an astrophysicist specializing in orbital mechanics… I play the effects of vehicle velocity, dynamically coupled directional thrusters and gravity to move satellites into precise orbits measured in milliradians and millimeters.  I’m looking for…”   Tahiti… your target’s mind is now baking on a beach in Tahiti.   Just a wee bit too technical for the average person on an elevator, don’t you think?

Believe it or not, most of our professions can be heard that very same way.  You need to boil your verbiage back to descriptive words that build a visual picture the average person can understand. How do you do that?  Plan for a conversation with a 16 year-old.

“Hi – my name is Abe Einstein and I’ve helped Space Shuttle astronauts rendezvous with everything from broken satellites to the International Space Station.”

If you can make it resonate with high school student, you’ll capture just about anyone you’re likely to meet on an elevator… and you can always “step-it-up” when you discover you’re riding with Neil Armstrong (for you Generation X, Ys and beyond, Armstrong was the 1st man to walk on the Moon…)

1.  Start with your name.  “My name is George Pederson, and…” Why start with your name? We all get nervous at times, and this basic entry will help you get through those opening heebie-jeebies.  Your name is the last thing you’re likely to forget when the heat’s on… and chambering it up front will allow you to fire the initiators for the rest of your elevator speech.  When you start confident, you’ll entice them to stay conscious for a few seconds more – and you’ve got to know this is a fight to keep their attention one precious line at a time…

What do you want your target to hear next?

2.  You want them to hear how much you love your job – to show passion for what you do.  Our astrophysicistAbe has a cool job, but even he can force minds to go to the tropics without a little energy and/or inflection in his delivery.   If he talks in a monotone, it will sound like he’d rather be doing something else – whether that’s true or not.  It’s all about impressions at this point and you want to let your target know you’re different… that you’re a catch.  Any knucklehead can fill in the blanks associated with the five elements of an elevator speech, but you want separation from everyone your target will meet that day – so think novel… think creative.

For many, showing passion creates one of a variety of conundrums… What (says you) do I do if I’m a plumber (electrician, mortician…)?  I mean I love what I do, but I can’t squeeze a convincing line of verbal enthusiasm out of my job.  We’ll walk through several examples that will help you do battle with that pessimism in a moment, but take my word for it, there are bigger challenges out there… Like what if I don’t even like what I do? The answer to that woe and many of the ones that follow is, well… fake it.  If you build enthusiasm into your pitch, even you will be caught up in it. You want your targets to know you’re different, special… the kind of special they can’t let go of.   It takes time and a bit of effort to get there, but it’s well worth it.

Some folks with technical backgrounds (physicists, computer/software specialists, engineers and the likes) have a hard time injecting a line of inflection into an entire day’s conversation, much less displaying enthusiasm about their work with someone they’ve just met.  Don’t let this genuine concern lead you to believe you’re excused from the need to hold your target’s attention.  That responsibility lies squarely on each of our shoulders… no matter how shy, fact-based, or depressed we may be.

How can you show your passion to others?  Chamber that emotion in yourself by inserting…

3.   A professional achievement that makes you light up to talk about.  Many resumes are filled with stellar bullets that look impressive on paper, but mean little to their author.   Don’t get me wrong… it doesn’t mean those lines aren’t important, they just don’t electrify your mood when you think about them.   Reaching the rung of “master craftsman”, “Six Sigma Black Belt” or the “Senior Executive Service” are all impressive lines, but if they don’t elevate your mental state, they won’t elevate anyone else’s.  If you’re going to include one of your accomplishments in your pitch, pick one that really, really means something to YOU… something that makes you glow on the inside, and brings a smile to your outsides when you think about.  You’ll find that when you do, an invisible jolt of energy, your confidence and and a feeling of “special” is given to people around you… an internal Wi-Fi, if you will, that passes a positive electric jolt to everyone in earshot.  That energy will set you apart from others, and make them want to learn more – which is exactly what you want.

Once you’ve got them wanting more, transition to…

4.  What you’re going to do next… (What you’re looking for).  People are naturally drawn to positive people.  If you’re currently employed, what follows is a natural transition.  But if you’re like most of us, you’re search is much more of an immediate concern.  The “honest broker” in each of us wants to reveal that “I’m out of work” fact right up front- even to a perfect stranger on an elevator.  But think about that for a moment.  When you start yammering about how you’re out of work, what does that do to your energy level?  If it sucks the wind out of your sails, then think about what it’ll do to the sails of a person you’ve just met.  There are several things you need to avoid in your pitch we’ll touch on later but for now, remember our job is to elevate the folks we engage.  As opposed to transitioning from what you’ve done to your current state of misery,move on to what you’re going to do for the next company that’s lucky enough to get you…  What might Abe Einstein add?  How about this…

“Hi – my name is Abe Einstein and I’ve helped Space Shuttle astronauts rendezvous with everything from broken satellites to the International Space Station.  I’m looking to inspire the next generation of students at George Mason University to make even bigger impact with their lives”

George Mason is where Abe wants to go – his target company.   He didn’t say he was working there, and he didn’t say he was out of work… He left that hanging.  If he captures the attention of his targeted individual, they’ll follow up Abe’s pitch with “How long have you been at GMU?”… Which gives Abe the chance to set the hook – “They don’t know I’m available just yet, but as soon as they find out, we’ll go to the next level together.”

Now if you’re really crafty, you can weave it all together in a way that will make your words stick in your target of opportunity’s noggin long after they step out of your elevator.  How do you do that?  With…

5.  An emotional hook.  Passion!  There are many novel ways to hook your target and keep them tuned into to your elevator pitch.  Here are a few generic hooks.  Show or Tell…

  1. Passion for your profession – Convey absolute joy for what you do
  2. Conviction for a cause (specific type of Non-profit… helping the infirm or the elderly…)
  3. A Killer accomplishment (I worked with President Reagan on his commission to…)
  4. A Captivating (synopsized) story that leads them to your big finish
  5. A genuine, and somewhat mischievous smile on your face throughout your pitch

If you’re wondering whether you can use more than one of these elements in your pitch, you can absolutely.  Matter of fact, the best elevator speeches use them all… and the folks that write them will continue using a variation of that same pitch long after they’ve got that next job.   An elevator speech is a powerful way to develop business.

Important considerations:

Key things to avoid in your pitch:

  1. ANYTHING negative (or that can be perceived as negative) “Out of work”, “In between jobs”, or any illusion to your unemployed (or pending unemployed) status. Don’t think of this as dishonest, think uplifting – think positive. Your status will come through follow-on conversations that you inspire through this very positive opening
  2. ANYTHING that telegraphs disgruntlement or dissatisfaction with your current job… whether you feel that way or not.  Think “elevating”… you want them to see you as the most positive person they will meet during their day.
  3. Something that can be seen as arrogant.  “The most handsome” “the smartest…”
  4. Anything arguable, unless the argument is universally accepted as fun.  (You’d have to be an idiot not to think) “global warming is happening all around us…”  will turn off half of the folks you meet.  You want to capture them all.

How much time does this take to build (you ask)? 

If you’re like most, just framing the pitch will take quite a bit of effort – for no other reason than you have so much information to sort through.  Like many things in life, this one will improve with time, and every time you give it, you’ll hear something that really resonates with your targets.  If it’s really good, you’ll hear it yourself long before it registers on the face of your target of opportunity.  Just as soon as you break contact with that individual, take a moment to write that new jewel down, or you’ll find that belting out that same line will be left (lost) to chance.

How much should I practice before I’m ready to deliver my big pitch (you ask)? 

Well maybe it’s time you answered the question we asked up front… What are the odds you could belt out a concise stream of consciousness right now…?  A stream that will capture your target and get them to help you… what are the odds?  It takes practice.  Lots of practice.

Try practicing in front of a mirror… or in your empty dining room.  It’s funny how those chairs will “talk back” to give us the feedback we’re craving for.  “Boy, that sounded stupid…”  “hey, that was pretty good…”  The goods and bads of your pitch will become more and more evident, the more you practice it – but it takes practice.

As you get the script just the way you want it, you’re delivery will progress through some pretty awkward stages.  The first is stilted – the words just don’t flow well.  The second is robotic – you sound like a monotonic, poorly developed recording.   The third is the transition to a conversation.  That’s when you know it so well and are so comfortable with the delivery that, to any potential target, it sounds like you just happened on the words.  This is what you’re shooting for.

Practice in the car on your way to work, the gym, your doctor, or during your Tuesday drive to CNM.   If you turn off the radio, you can sneak in 15 practice runs in a 20-minute drive.  Couple of trips, and you’ll be on your way (so to speak).

So… When should you give your speech (you ask)?

Great Question, and believe it or not, many folks miss what would be fairly obvious opportunities to a casual observer.  Here are a few aural cues that should chamber your elevator pitch:

–       So what do you do?

–       Tell me a little about yourself…

–       Who are you?

–       Abe, this is Bill Peebles.  Bill works in Finance… Abe, you do something with math, don’t you?

–       So Jimmy, what keeps you out of debtor’s prison?

Do you give it during an interview?  If the interviewer says “tell me about yourself…” it’s the perfect opportunity to use your elevator speech as the foundation for the conversation that follows.

Ideas and malleable lines for your pitch…

My name is Drew Glasscock and I love making projects and programs come together…

My name is Chuck Peebles and I may be the most fortunate man you’ve ever met…

My name is Bill Wiser and I may be the most uniquely qualified electrical engineer you’ve ever met… I take the most complicated technical issues and convey it to people of all walks of life in a way that gives them traction

My name is Joel Epstein and I am the 5th of 5 unbroken generations of master cabinetmakers – it’s in my blood and I…

I solve the most significant (computer) issues you can imagine to make the right things happen for the right reasons…

…confidence that has come through a couple of pretty big life and leadership challenges.

…help Booz Allen attract, motivate and retain high caliber people in a way that will accelerate every positive aspect of their capture and delivery business process.

…build the kind of organizational integrity that will exceed the sum of your parts

…creating cohesion that draws people in and makes them want to stay

…create a team that will move to action just because you ask them to

How about a couple of examples…

My name is Abe Einstein and I’ve helped Space Shuttle astronauts rendezvous with everything from broken satellites to the International Space Station.  I’m an looking to inspire the next generation of students at George Mason University to make even bigger impact with their lives.  My name is Abe Einstein (hand them a card) – and it was a pleasure meeting you.

My name is Dirt Digger and I may be the most fortunate man you’ve ever met.  I help families embrace the most emotionally significant moments in their lives… The loss of someone they love.   I’ve taken great pride in helping Texas families illuminate and cherish their best memories in quite, moving celebrations… and I’m looking to do the same for families here in Northern Virginia.   My name is Dirt Digger (Hand them a card) – I help people – and I love what I do.

My name is Bill Ratsnest and I may be the best electrician you’ve ever met.  I wire homes and businesses in a way that won’t just meet your current needs; you’ll be set for a lifetime’s growth in demand. There’s a strange joy that I get from troubleshooting wiring issues – and I pride myself on being able to do it faster and cheaper than anyone else in the business.  My name is Bill Ratsnest –I love what I do (hand them a card)…

My name is Bevy O. Reality and I move houses.  Over the last two years, I’ve sold more residential properties here in (Springfield) than any other realtor… and I’ve done it so that both the buyer and seller walk away better for the transaction.  The secret is not in loving real estate – the secret is in loving people.  My name is Bevy O. Reality (hand them a card) – and it was a pleasure meeting you…

My name is Digger E. Dumpster and I move mountains.  I’ve been behind the wheel of every kind of earth moving machine you can imagine – And I take more than a little pride in what I do.  Over the last two years, I helped shape the foundation of the World Trade Center Memorial in New York – And while that was a special opportunity, I’ve approached every location with same level of respect, care and craftsmanship.  I’m looking to relocate my trade to Northern Virginia and couldn’t be more excited about the shape of things to come.  My name is Digger E. Dumpster (hand them a card) – and it was a pleasure to meet you.

My name is Huge Achiever and I have a knack for making things happen on time and under budget. I bring the key players surrounding any end-game goal together and then shepherd their interaction to that end.   I’ve helped both Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman make big things happen, and I’m looking forward to taking SAIC to even greater successes. My name is Pfram Ananger and (hand them a card), it was a pleasure meeting you.

My name is John Venable, and I may be the most fortunate man you’ve ever met.  I was born knowing what I wanted to do – to not just fly, but to fly fighters – to lead the US Air Force Thunderbirds.  I had to overcome a big hurdle to get there, but when I did, I reveled in the extremes of performance and risk that job offered.  I get to enjoy that same sense of exhilaration now by motivating individuals and organizations to achieve much more than what they think possible.  My name is John Venable (hand them a card), and I love what I do…


Crib Notes

An Elevator speech is a well-rehearsed version of what you want your targeted individual to hear about you before they can leave or loose interest… It answers the question, “if you stepped into an elevator on the top floor of a building with someone you’ve never met and had only a few moments to describe yourself, what would you say?”

Rules of Thumb

  1. Keep your speech between 30-60 seconds… and you’d better speak like John Grisham writes if you press the right side of that envelope.
  2. Your speech has to be well thought out, and well rehearsed.  So well that it comes off like it’s not rehearsed at all… it just sounds like part of a conversation.
  3. It needs to be positive from start to finish.
  4. You need to boil your verbiage back to descriptive words that build a visual picture the average person can understand.  Plan for a conversation with a 16 year-old.

Key Elements of an Elevating Elevator Speech:

  1. Your Name
  2. What you do (Your expertise)
  3. A single professional accomplishment that makes you light up to talk about
  4. What you’re going to do next (what you’re looking for)
  5. Include an emotional hook.  Passion!
  6. Your card

Ideas for setting an emotional hook:  Use one or all.

  1. Passion for your profession – Convey absolute joy for what you do
  2. Conviction for a cause (Non-profits, helping the infirm or the elderly…)
  3. A Killer accomplishment (I worked with President Reagan on his commission to…)
  4. A Captivating (synopsized) story that leads them to your big finish
  5. A genuine, and somewhat mischievous smile on your face throughout your pitch

Key things to avoid in your pitch:

  1. ANYTHING negative (or that can be perceived as negative)
  2. ANYTHING that telegraphs disgruntlement or dissatisfaction with your current job
  3. Something that can be seen as arrogant
  4. Anything arguable, unless the argument is universally accepted as fun

An elevator speech is a powerful way to develop business/interest in you, long after you have that job you’ll snag when you take the time to do this right.


Air Force Pilot Beats Cancer: John Venable Thunderbird TBirdOne

Pilot Beats Cancer Before Joining Elite Flying Squadron
Reprint from American Cancer Society Article date: 2000/02/09

For Lt. Col. John Venable, becoming a member of the US Air Force’s elite flying squadron, the Thunderbirds, was the fulfillment of a boyhood dream.
By 1996, the boy who once only imagined himself flying in precise formation among the world?s most elite pilots, was a veteran F-16 fighter pilot himself. At age 36, he was on track to become part of the Thunderbirds demonstration squadron, until a flight physical in June of that year revealed he had thyroid cancer.
In hindsight, he knew something was wrong well before a doctor diagnosed him with thyroid cancer.
First, there had been a sudden loss of energy.  Venable placed a premium on staying in top physical condition, but he was finding it increasingly difficult to drag himself into the gym. “It’s a mental challenge to go to the gym every day,” Venable said. “The challenge was even tougher because I didn’t have the energy. Eventually, I just stopped.”
Then there was the stabbing pain in his throat that woke him from his sleep. “It was like someone was sticking a knife down my throat,” he said.
Thyroid cancer is a disease that affects the butterfly-shaped gland that produces hormones to help regulate body functions. The American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates 18,400 new cases of thyroid cancer will be diagnosed in the US this year, and 1,200 people will die from the disease.
For reasons that are not completely known, thyroid cancers occur more often in women than in men. Most cases of papillary and follicular thyroid cancer are found in people between the ages of 30 and 50. Benign thyroid nodules and thyroid cancers can occur in people of all ages. Treatment options include surgery to remove all or a portion of the thyroid, radioactive iodine treatment, radiation therapy, hormone therapy, and chemotherapy.
For Venable, the experience was not his first with cancer. His mother died of cancer when he was 19, and his sister died of ovarian cancer shortly after he was diagnosed with the disease. “I had always thought that I was susceptible,” he said. “It may sound funny, but once I knew what it was, I started to feel better. I knew what I had to do. I had to beat cancer.”
Two weeks after his diagnosis, Venable underwent surgery to have his thyroid removed. Because the thyroid plays an important role in producing hormones, he now relies on daily hormone therapy to regulate his body functions. As he recovered from surgery with his family and friends around him, Venable had a moment when he allowed himself to believe the disease had put an end to his childhood dream. He remembers telling a friend, “I guess I’ll never be a Thunderbird.”
While doctors told him the cancer was “widely invasive,” tests on the removed thyroid and surrounding tissue showed it had not spread to any other parts of his body. But to resume his career as a fighter pilot, Venable would have to convince the Air Force that he was fit to fly F-16s despite his illness. “I’m a fighter pilot. Fighter pilots only want to fly fighter jets,” he said. “The first hurdle I had was to prove to everyone that I beat cancer.”
He resumed his strict exercise routine and took command of his recovery. Venable refused to accept that he was no longer capable of flying an F-16. “When you have cancer, no one can beat cancer but you, not your doctor,” he said. “I had to say, no, I am going to get back into a fighter cockpit.”
Eventually, Venable climbed into the cockpit again, fulfilling his dream by becoming wing commander of the Thunderbirds.
“John Venable is a hero of mine,” said retired Brigadier Gen. John W. Rutledge, who was Venable’s superior officer while both were stationed in England in 1997. “He is the perfect example of a person who overcomes cancer and presses on with life.”
Looking back, Venable credits the Air Force for taking a chance on him. With so much invested in training pilots, it would have been easy for the Air Force to decide against making him a Thunderbird. “I was happy to see the Air Force take a chance,” he said.  ACS News Center stories are provided as a source of cancer-related
news and are not intended to be used as
press releases.