Crafting an editor’s elevator speech

elevator signI help authors develop and finish draft manuscripts, making their meaning clear and concise in ways that appeal to
intended readers.

These services include editing, index compilation, and styling and verification of data-intensive material.

There you have it. My newly minted, long-time-in-the-devising elevator speech (or statement).

Of business-speak’s most often encountered terms, elevator speech is near the top, climbing through all strata of net worth, employment type, and favorite watering hole. For years, I’d blink nervously and nod dumbly as a new acquaintance described the thrust of his managerial position as “attaining predictable six sigma quality with a long-term defect level hovering near 3.17 since inception.” Somewhere I’d gotten the notion I was supposed to understand it, and my near-autonomic insertion of “fascinating” into such moments is now a handy tip-off that I’ve somehow stumbled into this person’s elevator.

That said, I still need a short-form way to describe my own work that, ideally, is jargon-free. For too long, I’ve resorted to winging it, changing the subject, or mumbling that “it’s, um, too complicated to explain briefly.” (How’s that for making a positive initial impression?)

I continually postponed the intensive work of self-scrutiny and word-by-word parsing required to compose a couple of understandable, memorable statements that both provide useful information as well as intrigue whomever is listening enough to elicit a question or two. When I recently launched into the process in earnest, I aped the chef’s mise en place, a little like this:

container: largish bowl     contents: one concise chunk of meaning for the term editor
ramekins     small amounts of spice to add flavor
medium-sized saucer     ground-up (i.e., simplified) services I offer

In my bowl, I dropped a few cogent dictionary definitions. Although Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary (M-WU) allots seven definitions for editor, it’s my guess that I have less than a 50/50 chance of sharing an elevator with somebody who already knows what the term entails as it relates to my work. I’ve never cut and spliced film, for example, nor do I “direct or supervise the expressive policies or the preparation of a publication such as a newspaper” (M-WU). I certainly never have been entrusted with “the contextual supervision of a section, special department, or feature of a publication” (e.g., sports editor; again, MW-U).

In fact Webster’s defines the person providing the services that do fall within my purview as:

One who alters or revises another’s work to make it conform to some standard or serve a particular purpose
<Some editor had bowdlerized the letter before publishing it.>

Hardly complimentary, barely accurate, and badly in need of explanation. I take particular exception to the use-it-in-a-sentence example. An editor like me would never find himself in a position to bowdlerize anything. (Besides, we would never be able to wrench that kind of effort loose from a publisher’s marketing, PR, and legal departments.)

It was clear I needed to take a whisk to this definition and add a dollop or two from other dictionaries to develop a palatable and useful product. First, grasping at the accurate bits from M-WU, I certainly do “alter or revise another’s” writing—but not their “work,” per se. As for making “it conform to some standard,” that’s an important aspect of my service—but said “standard” is set by the author and publisher, not some whim I decide to impose.

Except for the snootiness, I can embrace “[to] serve a particular purpose,” just so long as it is clear that said purpose is: to communicate information and/or a story in such a way that the author’s targeted audience will (1) want to read it all; and (2) these readers will come away with a firm understanding of what the author has described and explained.

Now then, where does that leave my nascent elevator statement?

I work with written text to make sure it conveys its author’s meaning in a clear, concise, and eloquent way that appeals to the targeted audience.

Jargon-free, albeit a little stuffy.

And that’s when and why those ramekin-borne ingredients come into play. The term written text is risky—mention of text may shift what follows into a mental full-stop for some elevator denizens. Besides, what is “text” if not “written”? Perhaps manuscript works better; except for rare-book curators and musicologists, people tend to understand that word as I intend it. Also crucial is inclusion of the sense that the manuscripts I work on are not yet polished, much less publication ready. Maybe changing written text to draft manuscript softens and refines the term? And how about revising eloquent way to engaging language and targeted audience could become intended readers. Once I moved authors back so that I don’t risk misrepresenting them as afterthoughts or unimportant, I’ve arrived at:

I help authors develop and finish draft manuscripts, making their meaning clear and concise in ways that appeal to intended readers.

Ayellow elevator pulleynd what work do I actually do in this process? Here’s where I tend to stumble, so the ingredients on my saucer must be carefully considered. As the practitioner, each type of service I offer is clearly differentiated from all the others in my mind. Editing alone can be parsed into at least three distinct phases, but does the person in the elevator give a damn? Not likely. So I’ve boiled down the ingredients to “editing” and “compiling indexes,” with just a quick mention of the specialité de la maison—”styling and verification of data-intensive material.”

I realize that last bit is a risk—so much for aspiring to a jargon-free elevator statement—but it will be the last thing out of my mouth, and if I haven’t already lost the my fellow ascenders, I’ve just handed them a tasty opportunity to interject “Huh?” or some other, more elegant interrogative. If the work I do has some possibility of being useful to this person, a bejargoned closing shouldn’t preempt our talking further. Who knows? It may even be exactly that aspect of my work they’re looking for, even if they don’t yet know it.

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