I wish I had a nickel for every time a marketing director asked the elevator speech question: "What if someone asks, 'What do you do?' and you have 20 seconds to answer? What do you tell them before the doors open and one of you gets off?"
I think, therefore I am
Since professional service providers tend to spend a lot of time in their head, they're ready to pitch at the slightest glimmer of interest from another human being (prospect). The brain is the default filter for everything.
Lawyers, for example, might offer an elevator speech along the lines of "I add value to leading privately held companies by addressing the sophisticated legal issues relating to complex ownership succession."
Or, they might turn themselves upside down and inside out figuring out, as one expert recently put it, how to "spark interest in the potential client without sounding like a salesperson."
The question, however, is not about wanting a snappy summary of how you make a living. It's not about re-framing the question from the other person's point of view to come up with a non-pitch pitch.
While all of that is good (especially the part about not talking about yourself), it's based on a flawed assumption, one that assumes that everyone is being cognitive all of the time.
The truth about the question
When someone asks what you do, chances are they really don't want to know what you do. That's because the elevator speech question is really about people being people.
The question is about someone needing something to break the ice. They could just as well be saying, "Nice tie. It reminds me of my Uncle Miltie." To which you might respond in a similarly personable and engaging manner.
It's a reminder that the brain is just one of several organs that apply to sales and marketing.
So, lower the bar. Loosen up. Connect.
Remember the true nature of the question and say something like... "I'm a lawyer, but I'm looking for something less stressful. I've applied for a position as a peace-keeper in Iraq. How about you?"
When asked, I'm liable to respond with "I'm a freelance writer. I'm working on a story about getting stuck in an elevator with a stranger."
The moral of the story? Granted, be able to describe what you do in English. But most people who ask "What do you do?" aren't signing up for the lecture, so don't give it to them.
Have a conversation instead.