If you are not familiar with the term elevator speech, it comes from the world of job search. Imagine that you are in need of a job and you find yourself in an elevator with the CEO of a company that would be a perfect fit for your skills and education. You have a 45 second elevator ride to introduce yourself to the CEO, tell him (or her) who you are, and how you would be the ideal candidate for a job at his company.
45 seconds is not a lot of time – you need to cut out the fluff and convince this busy CEO why you would be a benefit to his company.
You should use this same approach when you are communicating with Social Security and especially when you are testifying to a judge. They have something you want – the power to award you life changing disability benefits. So it stands to reason that you need to make the claims adjudicator or the judge’s life easy by demonstrating how you fit SSA’s definition of disability.
Focus on Social Security’s Definition of Disability
Fortunately, you don’t have to guess about what they need – Social Security tells us in clear terms that in order to qualify for disability you have to prove that you are unable to reliably perform the duties of even a simple, entry-level job because of a medically determinable condition. You also have to prove that your job limiting condition has lasted or is expected to law at least 12 consecutive months or result in death.
Therefore, if you spend time discussing anything other than how your medical condition impacts your capacity for work, you are wasting your time and you are wasting the adjudicator’s or the judge’s time. Further, if you don’t get to the point quickly – i.e., 45 seconds or a minute – the adjudicator or judge will most likely conclude that you don’t meet SSA’s definition and they will simply stamp “denied” on your file and move on to the next claim.
I have tried hundreds of disability cases and in just about every hearing the judge will ask my client the following question “why do you believe that you are unable to work?” The last thing you want to do is respond with 10 minutes of rambling nonsense about a car accident from 25 years ago or a strange swelling of undiagnosed cause on your elbow that started 2 weeks ago.
Back in August, 2015 I released a video entitled “Why I Will be Rude to You at Your Hearing” in which I explained how I will stop a rambling client by interrupting and redirecting any hearing testimony that is getting off track. As I said in this video, I do this not to be rude, but to win cases.
As you read the following examples of both effective and ineffective elevator speeches, keep in mind that the only issue that matters in your case is how your long standing medical problem keeps you from working.
Examples of Poor, Ineffective Social Security Disability Elevator Speeches
Bad answer #1: “I have been having a lot of back pain and headaches over the last 3 weeks.” This is a bad answer because the judge needs to know why you have not been able to work as of your alleged onset date, which is most likely a year, two years, three years or more in the past. A recent problem may or may not be disabling and you probably don’t have any current or definitive medical evidence about this recent problem.
Bad answer #2: “My doctor says that I have a slipped disc/torn up knee/fibromyalgia/heart problems and that I can’t work.” This is a bad answer because it is not responsive to the question. The judge didn’t ask you what the doctor said – he wants to know why you contend you cannot work – what real life issus are you facing in your day to day existence. Your doctor’s reports will be in the record. Also terms like “slipped disc,” “torn up knee,” “heart problems” are not medical diagnoses. Unless you can speak knowledgeably about your medical condition, focus on the impact of your medical issue on your capacity to hold a job and stay away from labels.
Bad answer #3: “I am depressed and can’t concentrate.” This is a start but you would need to go into detail about specifically how your depression impacts your day to day existence. Do you have crying spells? If so, how often and for how long? Do you have days where you can’t get out of bed? Do you have anger control issues. Again, focus on why you would not be able to work.
Bad answer #4: “No one would ever hire me because of my bad back, and I don’t have a car to get to work.” This is a poor answer because it does not answer the question of why you do not have the capacity for full time work. In the Social Security disability world it does not matter than no jobs exist near your home or that no one is hiring. If there was a job and if you had transportation, could you perform the tasks at a simple job, 8 hours a day, 5 days a week?
Bad answer #5: I know I can’t work because my back seizes up on me and I am in a lot of pain all the time.” This is bad because you are stating a conclusion not a reason. Further, the question of whether or not you can work is one for the judge not you. A judge would also conclude from a statement like this that you have given up and don’t have the desire to try to work.
Examples of Strong, Effective Answers to the Question “Why do you Believe that you are Unable to Work?”
Good answer #1: “I have nearly constant back pain and my pain has been at this level since August of 2015, when I was involved in a serious car accident. I was hospitalized for 5 days and underwent fusion surgery to repair 2 disc herniations. Unfortunately scar tissue formed and my doctor does not recommend any more surgery – he has referred me to long term pain management. I have severe nerve pain radiating down my left leg and if I sit for more than 10 minutes my left leg goes numb and becomes extremely painful. Standing in one place for more than 5 minutes also results in pain and numbness. I can walk on a flat surface for about 10 minutes before the numbness and tingling kicks in. I spend most of my day shifting from sitting in my recliner to walking around my house. The pain meds dull the pain but never get rid of it. When I take trazadone, I fall asleep and the percocet makes me constipated and unable to focus and concentrate. I tried to return to my job in October of 2015 but I had to leave after an hour. My condition now is not significantly better.
Why is this answer effective? It provides specifics including dates and injured body parts. It focuses on activities necessary for reliable work – sitting, standing, walking and concentrating. And it suggests that you are a fighter and want to return to work.
Good answer #2: “I have not been able to work since August, 2015 because of complications from my diabetes and because of chronic neck pain. I was diagnosed with Type II diabetes back in 1995. At first the doctors had me on pills by in 2011 I started taking insulin shots. When I stopped working in August 2015 I was taking 2 units in the morning and 2 in the afternoon. In July, 2016 I had an insulin pump installed. Even with all the insulin, I have not been able to keep my blood sugar under control. When I wake up it is over 300 and my eyes are blurry until about 11 am. Twice a week I have low blood sugar episodes and I need assistance to get a drink of orange juice or a piece of candy. Around January, 2015 – before I stopped working – I starting having nerve pain and numbness radiating into both arms. I started noticing increasing numbness and by the time I stopped working I was unable to hold a pencil or type for more than 5 minutes because of the numbness and nerve pain. I still have the numbness and for the last 2 years I have nearly constant neck pain.
This is an effective answer because it gives the judge a history about how your medical condition has deteriorated, detail about why you would not be reliable and why even simple, physical tasks would be impossible.
Good answer #3: “I left my last job in August, 2015 because I was unable to perform my job duties due to severe depression. I was physically and sexually abused as a child but received no therapy or treatment until about 10 years ago when I had a breakdown and had to be hospitalized at a psychiatric facility when I tried to kill myself. Since then I have treated with 3 different psychiatrists and I have tried over 10 different medications. Some of these medications work for a while but either they lose effectiveness over time or the side effects become too uncomfortable. I have also seen psychologists and counselors regularly but I still feel as if I am in a deep hole with no way out. At my last job I got written up for falling asleep at my desk because I don’t sleep at night. I was also spending time in the bathroom trying to control my crying. I have lost my house, my car and I don’t really hear from anyone in my family. I have been hospitalized 3 times in the past 5 years for suicide attempts and I don’t really know what the future holds for me.
This is an effective answer because it gives the judge an understanding of both the length of your struggles with depression and the severity of your case. It also addresses reliability problems you had at a job and suggests that you would have the same issues at any job you might try.
Obviously, you will want to practice with your lawyer how to best answer the “why do you believe that you are unable to work” question. I hope you can see from these examples why the most effective answers provide a history of a long term problem, and focus on how your medical or mental health issue would likely impact you at a job. Further, the better answers suggest that you have been compliant with your doctor’s treatment, and that you have not given up and that you are fighting the idea of being labeled as disabled.
If you would like to know more about whether you may qualify for Social Security disability benefits, please visit the home page of this website. There you can request a copy of my “Secrets to Winning Social Security Disability” Survival Kit, and a free case evaluation. I also invite you to visit and subscribe to my Social Security disability YouTube channel at , where I have uploaded dozens of videos explaining every aspect of the SSD claims process.