Effective Messaging: Summary vs. Significance

Paul NealThe CACE Roundtable1 Comment

School leaders know the importance of supporting the admissions efforts of their school with well-developed plans in order to effectively communicate with prospective parents before, during and after “sales efforts” (admissions team activities) have taken place. Marketing efforts can increase the pool of families exploring your school as an option and also prepare prospective families with information that makes them more interested in your school than they would have been without that information. Marketing efforts also reinforce what was communicated during time with admissions personnel. Through all these activities, what we say and how we say it matters in how effective we are in supporting the admissions efforts.

School leaders are often asked to create what is referred to as an “elevator speech” regarding their school’s true distinctives. The idea behind this is to be able to tell someone about your school in 30 seconds or less – the time it takes for someone to get on and off of an elevator while one has their attention. The elevator speech is intended to communicate things that matter most to the listener (Christian school) so that we can effectively market. It is becoming common for schools to go through an exercise with employees or their board to try to equip them with the right words and focus in order to capitalize on these opportunities. The idea is that if you prepare volunteers with the right information about the school, their own individual efforts at talking about the school with friends or family will yield greater results. All of this is generally true.

Sometimes these speeches are a summary of the school. The idea is to give the listener as much information in as short of a period of time as possible. The typical approach is to white board the key elements of the school—maybe focusing on the value proposition and some key distinctives and come up with a summary that captures what you do. The question is how effective this is in creating interest in the school.

So there are two ways of creating an elevator speech one is wrong and is basically what I mentioned above. This method is ineffective. The other can be quite useful. The first approach is to distill or summarize all of the information about the school. In other words, distilling all of the features down to a bare minimum in order to meet the time constraint. This approach ensures that all of the key points are heard and nothing major is left out. In order to do this, though, it is really more of a distillation rather than an effective way of communicating. In the end what gets created is a short statement about yourself (your school).

The other approach is to use the speech more as a hook than as a summary. Given that one only has 30 seconds with the listener, what is the most effective thing to say in order to spark interest or get them to be willing to listen to more? This approach involves much less of a summary and much more of picking even one major item to highlight about experience or impact. This approach becomes more about what happens at the school than about who we are. We focus on impact rather than activity. And we tie the message to the listener rather than to the speaker.

I once met a businessman who described what he did in leading his company as “slaying dragons.” All that he did with fighting competitors, building up new employees, launching products that were game changing were, in his mind, so much more than just leading a team. That was much more interesting than to be told that he ran an IT company. Was he accurate? Sure. But, in addition, he created a picture. He created interest. And he certainly made it sound like what he did mattered. He slayed dragons!

So what should an elevator speech involve? Here are a few items that can make them quite effective:

  • Powerful stories
  • Important players
  • Effective programs
  • Outcome of graduates
  • Spiritual development

Each of these items are examples of what could be discussed in an elevator speech so the listener is interested and wants to find out more. The elevator speech should never deliver all that we need to say to the person that is listening, but rather make them want to learn and hear more.

Of particular value to listeners is to hear stories about why we do what we do—this is especially true of teachers. Teachers have such great stories. Some of the most effective stories we hear are from teachers that go through the exercise of crafting an elevator speech. They share about shaping lives, igniting a spark in a particular child, watching a student grow in their own relationship with Christ. In using this tool to communicate about ourselves, we should remain particularly careful to not talk about ourselves in ways that don’t matter to the listener. Outcomes take what we do and make it important to the listener. This is how we get prospects interested and willing to learn more.

Marketing is about crafting messages that matter—crafting messages that make a difference in people’s decision making. The goal is to give a potential customer enough information for them to either make a decision or to change their mind from what they had decided. But in both cases, the goal is to be compelling. The truth is, many times, without intervention, we would not win over that potential customer. If this is true, our assumption is that what we say or do in an effort to market (whatever the product may be) is critical in supporting the sales efforts of the organization.

Test an elevator speech this way. At the end, do you get a “thank you?” Or do you find yourself peppered with questions by someone who wanted to know more? Ideally, the 30 seconds you shared led to the listener asking for more of your time rather than the other way around.


  • Paul Neal

    Paul T. Neal serves as the Director of Operations at CACE. Paul brings years of experience in marketing research and enrollment management expertise to the team. Paul has presented and been published on the use of normative data in analysis, respondent motives, trends in education and online communities, and respondent quality. Paul joined the team after serving as Senior Vice President for Advancement and Communications at Cairn University. Prior to founding research firm Charter Oak Research (now part of CACE), Paul was a Principal at Olson Research Group for 15 years as well as serving as the Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Federalism at Temple University responsible for qualitative research on political culture and U.S. Public Policy. Paul has served as an adjunct faculty member at several Philadelphia area universities. Paul is a graduate of Eastern (B.A.) and Villanova (M.A.) Universities and attended Temple University for further graduate study.

One Comment on “Effective Messaging: Summary vs. Significance”

  1. Thanks for this Paul! When I worked as a “Director of Development” few had any idea of what that meant. When I told them I was a cheerleader, storyteller and stewardship agent the connections were made and the conversations took root.

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