From the Elevator to the Theater

Brandon Voss is the Director of Operations and an Instructor/Consultant with The Black Swan Group. He’s been instrumental in adapting the FBI’s hostage negotiation techniques to the business world. Oh, and one other thing. He doesn’t know it, but he believes in the oikos principle.

In an article Voss recently wrote, he said: “I’ll be honest—I’m not a fan of the elevator pitch. The idea of preparing a 30-second sales speech in which you explain your idea or solution and why it’s valuable goes against every unwritten rule of persuasion. Although it’s intended to drum up excitement in a short window of time, this sales technique inevitably breeds resentment and rejection.

The biggest issue with the elevator pitch technique is that it’s built on personal bias. When you pitch someone an idea without first attempting to understand them or establish a relationship, you make a handful of bad assumptions. You assume that they’re interested in what you have to say, that they need what you have to sell, that the conversation will continue, and that no one else needs to be involved in the decision.

In addition to those fatal negotiation flaws, the elevator pitch is founded on yet another bias—the belief that sales are a “numbers game.” In other words, if you give the same 30-second pitch to 10,000 people, it’s bound to land eventually...right? If you want to win more deals, hoping for an anomaly isn’t a viable negotiation strategy. So why continue using a communication approach that alienates your prospects and has such a high failure rate?

Finally, the very idea of giving a sales pitch in an elevator is counterproductive. If you’ve ever been stuck in a tiny, enclosed space and had a stranger start talking at you, you know how inherently unwarranted it feels. In such an environment, there’s no escape from the conversation and no way to excuse yourself from the discomfort of the moment. This feeling of being trapped (both by the communication style and the environment) amplifies all of our negative emotional responses. Rather than internalizing what the other person is saying, most people switch into self-preservation mode and start counting the number of floors remaining until they can get off. Picturing a sales pitch succeeding in this environment does both you and your counterpart a disservice. If your communication technique doesn’t account for your counterpart’s emotional state and environmental conditions, you’ll never be able to influence their decisions.”

(End of quote)

In my father’s last season of life and ministry, we shared hour after hour of conversation about church leadership and ministry philosophy. Both career pastors, he was as proud of me as I was of him. In those discussions, we often reminisced about the proverbial “good ‘ole days.”

I remember sitting around the island in our kitchen on one particular morning and him saying, “You know, Tom, I used to teach the oikos principle, but just didn’t use the word oikos.”

There may be no way to convey, through a post like this one, how much I respect my father, both as a pastor and a dad. He left this Earth seven years ago, yet his love for God’s Word and God’s people is the stuff legends are made of. But, when it came to evangelism, he operated in a world that we all seemed to be stuck in—a witnessing world that most Christians resisted instead of embraced.

Anyway, I responded, “Oh, really?”

The tone I used put a big smile on his face because he knew I wasn’t convinced. I continued. “If you believed in the oikos principle, then why, as our youth pastor, did you send us out every Sunday afternoon of my high school career for three hours, to go door-to-door and present people with Gospel tracts?”

He smiled even bigger. “I did that?”

“Yes, you did. And do you know that, that after all of those, what must have been at least 400 hours of canvassing our community with tracts…how many meaningful conversations I had with people about Jesus?”

“No. How many?” (His smile started to fade.)

“I can’t even remember one! That’s why I hated that brand of witnessing. I did it to honor you, but dreaded it every weekend.”

My Dad and I agreed that my classmates and I were probably not the greatest ambassadors of the Gospel that Jesus had in His quiver, but we both knew our hearts were in the right place. And that we certainly put in the time over the course of those four years. But the thing I remember most about the encounters I had with all of those strangers is this—"how inherently unwarranted it felt.”

I’m sure we should have prayed more. Perhaps we should have even taken better tracts. But, as I look back, I believe it would have helped if we’d all recognized that sharing the Gospel is exponentially more effective when people use a radically different approach.

Maybe it would have been as simple as just moving from the elevator to the theater.

This is what I mean by that—picture your life as taking place in a theater. You’re on the stage and there are eight to fifteen people sitting in the front row. They’re not the only ones in the theater, but they certainly have the best seats in the house, from which they’re able to see and hear what you say and do more clearly than anyone else. The Greeks called that front row your oikos.

By the way, I’m not much of a fan of the phrase, “I live my life for an audience of one.” I know what people intend to mean when they say it, that there’s only one opinion that ultimately matters, and it belongs to Jesus. (And I certainly can’t argue with that!) But Jesus isn’t a spectator. He’s not sitting in a theater seat watching you live your life. He’s actually living His life through you, as you demonstrate His grace and discuss faith, principally to the people He has supernaturally and strategically placed on the front row of the real audience.

It’s pretty incredible to realize that of all believers (from every generation, culture and denomination for the past 2,000 years of church history, dating all the way back to the Great Commission), 95% came to faith primarily through the influence of someone they were watching from the front row.

Over the last fifty years, my generation has learned that technology wasn’t the answer many of us believed it would be when mass-communication capabilities were first introduced to the world. While technology is able to reach the masses with information about the Gospel, information alone isn’t what changes the world. The power of the Gospel continues to be revealed through face-to-face conversations about faith and personal demonstrations of faith.

You may wonder why I’m so convinced that 95% of believers come to Jesus through an oikos relationship. It’s because I’ve asked audiences around the world the same simple question.

“Raise your hand if a parent or sibling, a work associate or classmate, a neighbor or friend, were the primary reason(s) you gave your heart to Christ?”

I’ve asked it of hundreds of audiences and literally hundreds of thousands of people. Different denominations, different countries, different cultures, different ages, different worship styles, different everything—yet I always get the same response to that one question.

I’ve also asked the inverse question.

“How many of you decided to give your life to Jesus, primarily because of a conversation you had with someone you’d never met before.”

Lots of crickets. Very few hands.

Keep in mind, if you have at least 10,000 individuals in your sampling, the margin of error shrinks to less than 1%. Oiko-metrics like that have changed the focus of my life, my schedule and my ministry—to say nothing of my Sunday afternoons.

There is certainly nothing wrong with striking up a conversation in the elevator. But if the world is ever going to understand the Gospel, we need to embrace the theater.

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