Before he sees his first client, at the beginning of each day, Fest takes his Belgian Shepherd dog Zeus out for a bike ride on the deserted dirt road that leads to his remote and flood-prone property on the edge of the South Florida Everglades. The long ride and the solitude of the place put him in the right frame of mind for meeting with his three or four clients that day. They come from all across America and join him for 60-minute, one-on-one video calls in which he helps them compress the stories of their struggles into a short speech that they can use in a variety of situations to get more support and attention for their work.
He calls his business “Elevator Speech Training.” Of his reclusive home Fest says: “I sometimes don’t leave this place for ten days straight.” He oxymoronically calls himself “a hermit who loves communication.” For his broadband Internet connection he has to use a military-grade LTE modem whose directional antennas point to a cellphone tower three miles away near the entrance to the Everglades National Park.
Marc Fest has a simple formula for helping you get more attention and support for whatever you do. He says it works for anybody in any situation. His clients use it to succeed on the frontlines of some of the biggest challenges of our time.
They are former National Security Council officials now working at D.C. think tanks, worrying about things like the impact of artificial intelligence on the command and control systems of nuclear weapons. They are CEOs of billion-dollar affordable housing investment funds, concerned about COVID-19 causing a “pandemic of evictions.” They are transgender migrants from Guatemala who now work as community organizers to help prepare undocumented immigrants for the terrifying moment when an ICE officer will knock at their door to arrest them.
Almost always, Fest administers a formula of three seemingly simple things: Urgency, specificity, and emotion. The first letters spell “USE,” so Fest often finds himself saying: “Use USE, and you’ll be doing great.”
Before each encounter, Fest sits down on a black leather sofa, closes his eyes, and focuses on his breathing for ten minutes. “It helps me clear my mind,” he says. He wants to be fully prepared to immerse himself in the mission and values of the person he’s working with.
“I have this feeling right before every training session,” says Fest, “that I’m about to enter into a sacred realm. My clients work on do-or-die crises like climate change or averting nuclear war or fleeing unimaginable horrors. They are caring, driven, innovative and idealistic people. I really feel as if I get to see everyday a cross section of the very best people our world has to offer. Even in these troubled times, they make me feel optimistic.”
Clients often ask Fest how long their elevator speech should be. He says it depends. The proverbial encounter inside an elevator demands being brief indeed, say, 60 seconds or less. But when you have a chance to introduce yourself to an audience as a participant in a panel discussion, two to three minutes is a good target. “If you have a one-on-one conversation at a cocktail party, it’ll be a back-and-forth that can go on for many minutes.”
Fest landed on emphasizing “use USE” after hundreds of training sessions in which he found that his clients almost always fell short in conveying urgency, specificity and emotion. “It’s natural,” he says. “They are extremely busy with day-to-day work, so they talk about that instead of the urgent reason behind what they do.” Hence the lack of urgency. “Because it’s mentally easier, they default to only giving abstract descriptions of problems and solutions without also providing riveting and concrete examples.” Hence the lack of specificity. “And because they often feel awkward about sharing how they feel about what they do and why they do it, they miss out on creating an empathic connection with their listeners.” Hence the lack of emotion.
The result is that even highly experienced leaders are often not nearly as persuasive as they could be.
Fest, formerly vice president of communications for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the New World Symphony based in Miami, primarily partners with funders who want to help the nonprofit organizations they support to clearly and dynamically communicate the importance of their causes.
His clients include some of the country’s best-known philanthropies: Knight Foundation, Ford Foundation, Carnegie Corporation, JPB Foundation, The Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, and others. (Since Fest’s company is an LLC and cannot receive grants directly, foundations sometimes make grants for the training through a fiscal sponsor intermediary, NEO Philanthropy. NEO takes on capacity builders like Fest as “projects” to strengthen the work of nonprofits.) Other Elevator Speech Training clients include for-profit corporations like Axel Springer, an international media company headquartered in Berlin.
Fest is booked up months in advance, and clients say they’re amazed by the progress they make “in just one hour.” (“If only all my one-hour meetings were so productive,” says the CEO of a billion-dollar affordable housing investment fund.)
Now, with the national shutdown during the pandemic, clients appreciate the opportunity to work with someone whose business had already adapted to video training. Says one donor relations manager: “As I was struggling with stress and lack of concentration amidst the rapidly changing public health situation, the training brought my mental focus back on the purpose of my work.”
Fest’s trainings are effective in part because he prepares well. By the time his MacBook Pro lights up with the face of a client, Fest will have looked at the person’s websites, LinkedIn page, Twitter feed, TED talk, recent media coverage, and anything else he can find online to customize the training. “My being familiar with their work allows us to dive right in,” says Fest.
He is keenly aware that different clients have different needs. Communications success for nonprofits usually means raising money from potential funders. For an analyst at a think tank, it can mean briefing members of Congress on the dangers of not renewing an arms control treaty with Russia. For a community organizer, it can mean enrolling undocumented immigrants as grassroots members in an organization that fights for immigration reform.
In all cases, he says, “crafting a successful elevator speech often means that they will have much greater confidence to move forward with an important project.”
Fest says he is able to be useful to his diverse group of clients because of what he calls his nine-step “U.S.E. Framework.” Unsurprisingly, it includes prompts for expressing urgency, specificity, and emotion. For example, to increase urgency, it suggests beginning one sentence with the words “what’s ultimately at stake is…” It also includes prompts to begin at least three sentences with the phrase “for example.” Says Fest: “This will automatically nudge you towards becoming more specific, and thereby more credible and persuasive.”
There is a lot of laughter during the sessions. Clients call the experience “a breath of fresh air,” “really energizing,” and filled with “generosity and warm humor.”
Sometimes, Step Seven in his Elevator Speech Framework (“personalization”) makes his clients cry. It’s where the German-born Fest (he speaks with a soft accent that most people find hard to place) encourages them to talk about why they care about their work and express an emotion. Their natural tendency is to talk about how accomplished or experienced they are, but Fest wants them to reveal a vulnerability or a pain point that relates to their work. That makes their pitch stronger, but for some clients it is hard.
“This step can be really powerful, especially right before your call to action,” Fest says. “If you can lower your guard and share something vulnerable, then your audience will lower its guard and become much more responsive.
“I could give you some great examples for how clients convey why what they do is deeply personal,” he says, but he treats his engagements with a lawyer-client-like level of confidentiality. “Even if I left out the name,” he says, “you could, in some cases, identify the person by going through the testimonials.”
One thing is not lost on him: The strange juxtaposition of his varied interactions via Zoom with his reclusive Everglades existence. Sometimes he worries that it might make him a bit peculiar. “There’s this one yellow butterfly,” he says. “She’s been coming by for months, making the same rounds every single day. Did you know that butterflies can live for up to a year? I call her Yellow. When I see her, I say ‘Hey, Yellow, how are you?’” He says he tried taking a photo of Yellow with his Canon. But it came out blurry. “I like it anyway,” he says, adding: “Sometimes I’m asking myself: What’s happened to you that you have a relationship with a butterfly?”
This story was produced in-house by Elevator Speech Training.