It’s good to be able to explain, in a brief, compelling, non-technical way, what you do and why anyone should care*. This is often called your “elevator pitch”, though I often think of it as “How to answer when an intelligent non-scientist asks me ‘So, what do you do?'” Here’s my elevator pitch for my microcosm work (probably the line of research for which I’m best known):
The best way to understand what I do is with an analogy. An aircraft engineer who was designing a new plane might build a scale model and put it in a wind tunnel to study the aerodynamics. In many ways, that scale model is nothing like a real plane, but for aerodynamic purposes it is. And a building a scale model is far easier than building a real plane. I do the same thing, except with ecosystems. I build scale model aquatic ecosystems in small bottles in the lab, using microscopic organisms with fast generation times. In many respects, those model systems are nothing like any natural system. But for the purposes for which I use them, they are. My research tests hypotheses about the general rules by which all ecosystems, including microcosm ecosystems, operate.”
I thought a long time about this pitch. I wouldn’t claim it’s perfect, but I think it’s pretty good. Here are some of the the features that I think make it work, plus some random remarks:
- It’s non-technical. This isn’t just the level at which you need to be able to explain what you do to an intelligent non-scientist. It’s also the level at which you need to be able to explain what you do to, say, the non-ecologists sitting on the search committee for that faculty position you’re applying for. Notice that the most technical terms in the whole thing are “aerodynamics” and “ecosystem”, terms with which even many non-scientists are reasonably familiar. If you find yourself wondering if you need to include the definition of some term in your elevator pitch, you should probably consider dropping that term. This is why my elevator pitch uses the term “ecosystem” rather than a more accurate but more technical (i.e. jargony) term like “ecological community”.
- It’s brief. Although not extremely brief. If asked to explain my work in one sentence, I usually reply, “Well, I could, but if you give me one short paragraph I can give you a much better explanation.”
- It uses an analogy. I don’t think everybody’s elevator pitch ought to include an analogy. But in my case, it’s a compact way to convey information about what I do and why it’s worth doing. I haven’t yet come up with a more compact, non-technical way to explain why one might want to do ecology indoors. I also think starting with the airplane analogy is an effective way to hold the listener’s attention. When you ask an ecologist “So, what do you do?”, you’re probably not expecting to hear an answer that begins by talking about aircraft engineering. So you’re listening actively when I get to the key punchline: “I do the same thing, except with ecosystems”. (Well, that’s my hope, anyway!) And while the analogy is imprecise, that’s ok because it’s just an elevator pitch. It’s not supposed to fully explain my work in a way that anticipates and addresses all possible questions or objections.
- It’s perhaps more focused on methodology than most people’s, as opposed to on the specific questions I work on. That’s not because I think my methodological approach is the most important aspect of what I do. And it’s not primarily because that aspect of what I do needs explaining, though that’s part of it. It’s mostly because I find this pitch more compelling than any question-focused one I’ve been able to come up with.
- You may want to have multiple elevator pitches to respond to different questions. My elevator pitch answers the question “What do you do?” It doesn’t answer the question “What have you discovered?” Ecologist Alienor Chauvenet has a post discussing the challenge of answering the latter question briefly and honestly, especially if you’re a fundamental researcher.
*Although not everyone thinks elevator pitches are a good idea.
Here’s to one day aerospace engineers starting their elevator pitches with, “You know how ecologists often fill small bottles of water with nutrients, algae, and daphnids…”
One comment in and already the thread has been won! 🙂
What’s the most common answer after your pitch Jeremy?
3. “That’s great!”.
Not “You’re hired.” 🙂
Ooh, my lab devoted two lab meetings to “elevator pitches” this summer. (One meeting was focused more on pitches for an academic audience, the other on pitches for a non-science audience.) It was an interesting experience for me, and I’m hoping to write a post on it someday, when I magically have lots of time. 🙂
Just to start: part of what was interesting to me was that, for the non-technical audience, I chose to emphasize the more applied angles. And that got me wondering about whether that was a good thing or not. It might make the person more excited about what I do, but it also misses the chance to argue for the importance of basic research. Anyway, like I said, I found the process interesting, and hopefully will have more time to write a post on it!
Do you often find people not involved in what you do (let’s say outside ecology or evolution) getting “excited” about you do after an elevator pitch?
I also typically go for a more applied angle when giving an elevator pitch to non-scientists. For most projects it is a bit easier as your audience might already be aware of the problem (habitat loss, climate change, pesticides, disease, etc.) I think non-scientists can also find basic angles exciting too, but you have to either be very general (see jeremy’s), or you have to spend a bit of time to set up the problem.
The question of how to tailor your pitch to your audience, especially whether to have a more applied angle for non-scientists, is an interesting one.
I don’t have an applied angle to my work at all (I’ve been known to joke that “no whales have ever been saved by my research”). When talking to non-scientists (or scientists, for that matter), the follow-up question I often get in response to my elevator pitch is some version of “So what aspects of ecosystems do you study?” Which I usually answer by talking about my work on spatial synchrony, because I think it’s my most compelling line of empirical research. Part of what makes it compelling (at least compared to other things I’ve done) is that it’s easy to explain why it’s cool. Spatial synchrony in nature is an amazing phenomenon. Many species exhibit freakin’ massive fluctuations in abundance that are synchronized across vast areas (e.g., most of Canada in the case of lynx-hare cycles). Where does that synchrony come from? How is it maintained? Spatial synchrony is such a striking phenomenon, it almost demands an explanation. So I talk about that. There’s even a (tangential) applied angle here, given that many of the most dramatic examples of synchrony are spatially-synchronized outbreaks of human diseases. I then point out that the fact that synchrony occurs in so many different species in so many different places suggests that there’s some kind of general explanation. And then I note that it’s hard to do experiments to test those explanations. I mean, what are you going to do, manipulate the weather across all of Canada to see what it does to the synchrony of lynx-hare cycles? Which is where my microcosm experiments, those “model planes in wind tunnels”, come in.
And if after hearing this someone really pushed me on the lack of direct, obvious “application” of what I do, I might take that as my cue to broaden the conversation and talk about why fundamental research in general is worth public support:
I find this part of your post interesting:
“and why anyone should care”
Do you think that anyone should care about what you do? I generally do not. I think people (anyone) should support science both in money and spirit, but I think you are referring to non-technical, but well-educated people when you say “anyone should care”. That leaves out (random number) 85% of the populations. Those people who I do not think immediately grasp what “fast generation times” means or the term “ecosystem”.
Which is fine, clearly, I just think that the 85% has all the reasons to be completely uninterested in what I do. In that case (presenting something to the 85er), I use the term mathematics and some biological parallel (genetics –> predict how tall a guy will be) to what I do. Both have a reason to be in the elevator (pitch).
If I am dealing with the non-technical, well-educated, I use different terms (still maintaining mathematics) and different emphasis.
Dealing with the technical but not in my field, I use different emphasis again.
It all depends on what I want to communicate and to whom. No single strategy.
Very rarely I found excitement. Interest, yes, but excitement is a very different thing. To find something exciting you need to relate to and at least know something about it.
Brief follow up:
You wrote “intelligent non-scientist”. It is clear, but I wanted to point out the “anyone”, that at that point is not anyone.
You wrote: “It’s also the level at which you need to be able to explain what you do to, say, the non-ecologists sitting on the search committee for that faculty position you’re applying for”
I personally do not like very much references to planes, cars (Ferrari in particular. It is like having the engine of a Ferrari …), trains and other mechanical things. If I am sitting on a search committee for a non-ecological position and the job-seeker is making reference to some far-out analogy, I’d be skeptic. Why is dumbing things down so much? would be my initial reaction. But your pitch worked very well for you, so I might be the exception here.
Wouldn’t ‘microcosm’ be the most technical term on the pitch? 🙂
Good point. When I’m giving the pitch I usually remember to explain what microcosms are (“tiny artificial ponds”), or else avoid use of the term entirely.
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