Engaging Elevator Conversations

Conversations in elevators can be some of the most uncomfortable and awkward examples of human communication. This article will provide you with three tips for engaging elevator conversations.

Three months ago I joined the legions of human beings who ride the elevator from the lobby of an office building to the floor where their office or desk is located – in my case, it’s the ninth floor of Vancity’s head office in Vancouver. Thanks to the rise of cities and the creation of denser, vertical urban neighbourhoods, millions of people also travel up and down in elevators en route to and from home, too. Needless to say, I’m quite confident that everyone reading this article has engaged in successful, failed and downright weird conversations in elevators.

When it comes to talking to people in elevators you need split-second decision-making abilities and some skill in having micro-conversations. If you’re like my awesome friend Darren Barefoot, who is a man of many talents, one of which isn’t elevator small talk, you might want to review this article by Gretchen Rubin. Here are my three tips for engaging in great elevator conversations:

1. Know Your Style and Pick Your Spot

Even if you are in a conversational mood, the randomness of elevators does not always make for stimulating community engagement. For example, sometimes elevators are empty, sometimes they’re full of people staring into their mobile devices, sometimes folks will be in mid conversation when you get on, and sometimes people will give you a stink-eyed look that says, “Don’t you even think of talking to me.”

Whatever the case, the first rule of elevator conversation is to understand what you want out of the experience (e.g. silence, a new friend, the CEO to remember your name, etc.). Unless necessary, you needn’t crowd your fellow travelers – pick a spot on the perimeter of the elevator and try your best to form a circle with the people in the space, even if that means turning your back to the doors. If there’s already a circle of folks in the elevator this is a great opportunity to, literally, be the center of attention! Alternatively, if such an idea terrifies you a little (or a lot), just smile politely at the people endeavoring to make eye contact, snuggle your way into the elevator, select your floor, pick a spot on the wall, and stare at it until the crowd thins out or you arrive safely on your floor.

2. Be Prepared for Every Possible Conversation

Sure, there are predictive elements of elevator rides. For example, you might know that the VP of Operations arrives at 7:45am every day and that the sweetheart of a guy in apartment 1315 always hits the gym around 8:30pm on weeknights. For the record, stalking isn’t cool. Furthermore, schedules can change and buildings frequently have more than one elevator. Consequently, you need to be prepared for all sorts of elevator conversation scenarios.

Are you suddenly face-to-face with a senior leader of your organization? Ask a question about the company’s three year plan or comment on the most recent information download that you received from your boss.

What if you can’t remember a really nice, chatty neighbour’s name? Ask about their day or inquire about their potential interest in a couple of upcoming events in the community. If you’re bold, be honest that you forget their name, apologize for it, and be authentic about how you really enjoy talking to them and will remember who they are next time! [Note: absolutely do not forget their name next time]

Are you like my friend Darren Barefoot and do you find yourself engaged in the most awkward elevator conversation in the history of everything? Just nod and smile, man. The ride will feel like an eternity, but it will really just be a minute.

3. Be Brief, Be Bright, Be Gone

The term “elevator pitch” can be traced back to a colloquialism used by North American salesmen in the 1960s-70s – they would wait in the lobbies of corporate headquarters and wait for a senior leader to arrive; during the ride up to the top floor, which would take 20-45 seconds (depending on how tall the company building was) the salesman would pitch their idea to their audience.

The final rule of elevator conversation is brevity. I’ve witnessed some super-awkward conversations that began with a big question or a line like, “I should give you an update about this meeting that we just had with Marketing, there are five big things to discuss…” and then the doors open and the conversationalists need to decide whether to end the chat, continue it on one person’s floor, or, much to the chagrin of other riders, hold the doors open to wrap-up the impromptu meeting. [Note: please do not do this third thing, as it’s very rude]

Whether you are asking or answering questions, when conversing in an elevator, your sentences need to be short and well-organized bullet-points. Start with what you think is the most important piece of the conversation, too, because you probably won’t have time to get through the entire list. Finally, be sure to have an exit-strategy for your chat because, before you know it, the ride is over.

Of course, if you’re the creative type you can do something amazing like give a lecture in the world’s smallest classroom:

When building community in an elevator all you really need to do is keep it simple. Say hello. Ask with authenticity how people are doing. And then wish folks a good day as they – or you – exit the ride.

Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk via Compfight cc

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