​Managing Perceptions: What Should Internal Auditors Say on the Elevator?

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I was recently interviewed about internal auditing by Federal News Radio, an AM and Internet station out of Washington, D.C. That interview was a great opportunity to represent the internal audit profession, but it also turned out to be an important reminder for me about just how internal auditors are often perceived.

The host opened the interview by saying, “Meet an auditor at a cocktail party, and you might decide you suddenly need a fresh drink.”

While the radio host was clearly engaged in a bit of levity, there may be more than a grain of truth in his portrayal of our reputation. We’ve all heard the jokes depicting our profession as tedious, intimidating, or even boring. Obviously, we don’t want people to run for the punch bowl each time we introduce ourselves. There has to be a better way.

Fortunately, I think the solution could be simple if we all work together. You’ve probably heard of an “elevator speech,” a 60-second (or shorter) pitch to a new acquaintance about who you are and what you do. An elevator speech is typically used when trying to land a job or close a sale, but I think it can be a great tool to mold or change perceptions about the internal audit profession.

After all, we really do have interesting jobs: We improve operations, give advice to CEOs and thwart nefarious fraudsters. I’ve never seen an auditor leap tall buildings in a single bound, but other than that, there’s not much in the business world we don’t touch at one point or another. As author and business management guru Tom Peters said in his presentation at our International Conference in July 2013, “internal auditing has got to be the coolest profession in the world!" If you’re an internal auditor, you may very well agree with that statement. But how do we convince others?

Delivering the perfect elevator speech doesn’t happen by accident, or we’d all be doing it. But embracing a few proven techniques can rapidly improve your ability to make a strong first impression about yourself and your profession. Follow these tips, and you might find yourself invited to a few more social gatherings . . . or maybe to an executive suite for a more serious conversation about internal auditing.

Grab their attention with the first sentence. First impressions are important, and the easiest way to keep your elevator pitch from sounding canned is to start out with an opener that’s so interesting your audience starts asking questions. I’m a believer in The IIA’s official Definition of Internal Auditing, but there’s a time and place for everything, and this is not the time to quote formal definitions. I have even described us as “change agents,” when discussing internal auditing with someone completely uninformed about the profession.

Short and simple is better than impressive and complicated. I will never forget listening to a job-hunting elevator pitch a few years ago. I’m still not sure exactly what job was sought, but it sounded something like “multi-predictive analyses of the bilateral effects of modulating the quantum singularity cache fluctuations.” The lesson here is to make the complex simple, not to baffle your audience. So, leave the audit jargon back in the internal audit department. “We improve operations and protect assets” is much more compelling to an uninformed audience than “we provide overall assurance on the effectiveness of internal controls and risk management.”

Put it on paper. Write down everything you’d like to say; then edit it down to the essentials. Read it out loud to yourself and adjust the words until it flows smoothly. Then commit it to memory.

It can’t sound rehearsed. Although you absolutely should memorize key points, your pitch must never sound rehearsed. Relying merely on rote memorization won’t work in any case: You need to be able to make on-the-spot adjustments to fit each specific situation. Without careful preparation, this might be more difficult than you’d think. The elevator speech won’t be the same for a Rotary Club member as it would be for a bridge club member.

It’s not all about you. Elevator speeches make a first impression, but they can be used for other goals. If you perfect this skill, you can also use it for job hunting or forming key business contacts within your organization. Whether your elevator pitch is about internal auditing or your favorite hobby, it should be tailored to the audience’s needs, not yours. You want them to remember you as someone who cares and who can help, not as someone with an ego.

One is good; two are better. I’ve been talking about a 60-second elevator speech, but these are not just for elevators. You can use this technique over lunch, in airports, or even standing in line at that punch bowl. You need to be prepared to “talk the talk” anytime, anywhere. After you have perfected your elevator pitch, it can’t hurt to have a longer version ready, or to be prepared to give more information about anything you mentioned in your pitch. Two speeches really are better than one.

Enthusiasm is infectious. If you love internal auditing, let it show. With the right attitude, building confidence and enthusiasm can be easy. But it also can be difficult to garner support for internal auditing or confidence in your abilities if you don’t display these qualities yourself.

Be ready to keep the conversation going. Try to end your elevator pitch with an invitation to give your audience more information. If you leave the door open, your one-minute pitch might result in an invitation to the CEO’s office for a longer chat. If time permits, you should also ask your audience about their profession. You might find out that you have something in common, or that they are part of an organization that could benefit from a strong and effective internal audit function.

An elevator speech can be a one-minute wonder that showcases your personality and enthusiasm, leaving listeners asking for more information. It can also be a lost opportunity. The choice is yours: Be prepared or, in the words of Benjamin Franklin, “by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

If you have a suggestion for a great internal audit elevator pitch, please share it here. Quite a few of us could benefit from your ideas. I look forward to your comments.

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