White Collar Reset: The two-minute pitch

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So it's come to this. Eight months into my job search, eight months of clinging to my old magazine journalism career like an alcoholic clutching his last Scotch, I arrive at the weekly Penn Station Meeting of The Five O'Clock Club seeking absolution and a new life. The Club, one of the country's largest executive and professional job coaching firms (in addition to three physical branches in New York City, it holds eight teleconference branches in the Eastern and Central time zones each week), reports that of the 17,000 people it's helped over the past decade, 58 percent change careers. Given the woeful state of my former industry, the statistic provides a kind of anxious hope on the same week the stock market has shrugged off news that continuing jobless claims have now reached the highest level since the statistic was first recorded, in 1967.

The meeting is held every Wednesday evening in a large fifth-floor conference room directly across Seventh Avenue from the station. The crowd of fifty includes a handful of men in their twenties, a smattering of African-American, Asian and Hispanic women, and a lot of white, middle-aged males, the 21st century's answer to The Man In the Grey Flannel Suit. Looking around the room, I count 13 (sorry, make that 14) bald or balding heads. The smell of Old Spice and stale coffee fills the air.
At the front of the room, a counselor named Kim is lecturing us about the "two-minute" pitch. The two-minute pitch is the summary of who we are, what we've accomplished and what we bring to a prospective employer that we are supposed to have down cold for use in interviews, informational meetings and random networking encounters. The key, as Kim explains, is to use "action" words and to focus on how what you did benefited your previous company. "It's one thing to say 'I organized a sales training program.' It's another to say 'I organized a sales training program that boosted profits by 50 percent.'"

I can see her point. Around me, fellow longtime jobless jot down notes, their lips silently moving as they rehearse their own two-minute pitches. I, too, give it a try, but, as a refugee of the long-suffering magazine field, I don't think it's quite coming out the way Kim intended.

Ok, let's see . . . I survived the firing of five editor-in-chiefs in five years in a tyrannically-run vanity publication that never once failed to finish in the red . . .

Or, no, wait, I got it . . . I turned around my company's most successful division, leading it to $400,000 in annual losses before the company filed for bankruptcy, owing 350 creditors some $4 million.

A short while later, Kim announces that we have a special guest tonight, a Five O'Clock Club "graduate" who has returned to share her success with us. Everyone claps and a smiling, middle-aged designer of distance-learning systems walks to the front and describes a months-long struggle that recently culminated in a job with a non-profit eldercare agency and would've been really inspiring if it didn't remind how much better off I would have been if had gone into distance learning.

Then we take a short break. By the time I find my way back from the men's room and locate the more intensive small group counseling session to which I've been assigned, a programmer is telling a heartbreaking story about how after months and months of searching, he finally landed a second interview with the company of his dreams, then a third, even got an offer letter . . . only to have the CFO ultimately decide against budgeting for the position. It's so sad, it's hard to watch, and my gaze shifts around the table to the other members of the group.

To my right, a man in a sharply pressed dress shirt and slacks sits back listening intently, a self-satisfied half-smile on his face. He reminds me of the realtor who sold me my house in suburban New Jersey at the height of the real estate bubble. (It's not a happy association. The house has turned out to have significant problems that obliterated the savings I would otherwise be using now to pay the mortgage.) Then our group leader offers the programmer a piece advice that prompts the guy on my right to make a flippant aside eerily reminiscent of the last time I talked to my realtor and confronted him about his role in the nightmare on Elm Street. And I realize . . . it is the realtor who sold me my house at the height of the bubble. "Excuse me," I interrupt the proceedings. "I think I need to change groups."

A half hour later, I've found Kim and been allowed to transfer into her group. The job prospects in here aren't much brighter, but at least the atmosphere is a little less fraught. A funny veteran of refrigerated transport sales describes his various "irons in the fire," including one "obsessive-compulsive" lead he's been maneuvering to get in to see for nearly a year. "They don't know they want to hire me yet. I'm actually making some progress if they don't have me arrested for stalking first." A former hospitality manager and travel buff explains he has long been fascinated by trains, so he recently took a course at a local community college offered by New Jersey Transit on becoming a train engineer (which strikes me as a little odd, but what do I know?)

Afterwards, I spend a few minutes chatting with Kim about my struggles with the two-minute pitch. I ask if she gets many journalists. "Oh, a few," she says, with sigh. She tells me I really need to finish "My Seven Stories," the exercise required of every Five O'Clock member in which you are asked to identify and rank the top seven most enjoyable and accomplished experiences in your life. "It will really help us identify what it is you want to do." On the way out, the train-engineer-in-training offers a helpful lead about a company that provides one-on-one mentorships in various fields to people considering a career change. We part ways in front of Penn Station. As he takes the escalator down to get back to riding the rails, the thought occurs to me that soul-crushing as tonight was, I clearly can't do this alone. I think again about my two-minute pitch and take another stab at it:

I am a bottom-line-oriented editor and content developer, with 15+ years experience managing the challenges of distressed and emerging creative companies . . .

Hmm, that doesn't sound half-bad, do you think?
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