This is a guest post from Catherine Searle, who just finished up a postdoc in my lab and moved to Purdue to begin a tenure track position. Each of the past two summers, Cat has led a lab meeting where she helped us craft elevator pitches. I thought the materials she prepared for lab meetings were really helpful, and asked her if she would write them up as a blog post. We’ve covered elevator pitches before (here and here), but I think Cat’s take is great and that many readers will find it useful, especially in preparation for ESA! Here’s her post:
Picture this: You are at the Ecological Society meeting (ESA), just having attended a session in your research area. At the break, you head over for coffee and notice that the person standing next to you was a speaker in the session you just attended. You introduce yourself and the first question they ask you is “what do you work on?” If you’ve ever been in this situation and felt like you stumbled through an explanation, avoided eye contact and shuffled away embarrassed, you are not alone. With ESA coming up, now is a perfect time to work on your “elevator pitch.”
The term “elevator pitch” or “elevator speech” comes from the hypothetical scenario where you meet someone in an elevator, and you have the length of the elevator ride to pitch an idea to them. If you do a good job, the conversation will continue after the ride. At scientific meetings, this idea can be applied to explaining your research to someone you meet (where the first question is often “what do you study?”). You want to give a quick summary of your research to help start a conversation. It’s a great way to find common interests with other ecologist and connect with potential advisors or advisees.
It may feel silly to practice summarizing your research for a conversation (you might be thinking, “of course I know what I work on” or “it’s weird to practice small talk”), but preparing an explanation of your research can help you make a good impression and give you confidence. It can also help in a variety of other situations: attending a lunch seminar, interviewing for a job, speaking with the press, meeting scientists outside your discipline, and even grant/paper writing. In this post, I will focus on elevator pitches for scientific meetings. I won’t cover pitches for non-scientists, but there are a number of great resources for these scenarios (here and here) and other sites with tips for general conference networking (here and here).
Ideally, your elevator pitch should be 30-60 seconds. You will need to modify the length and context of the pitch depending on your audience (more about this below)
There are many ways to structure an elevator pitch (see here and here). You want to make it a narrative and, in general, it’s best to organize it like a manuscript: start with a broad introduction, get more specific, and then bring it back to the broader context. How broad or specific you begin will depend on your audience. For example, you probably don’t need to tell an ecologist that biodiversity loss is a major global concern, but you could start by discussing one way that invasions are impacting biodiversity.
Here are the components to most elevator pitches (each of these sections can be as short as one sentence):
- Introduction – Explain who you are. This is sometimes unnecessary if you have already struck up a conversation.
- Hook – What is the major question/problem you study? You can also start with an observation (e.g. I noticed this pattern in communities with more predators and I thought that predation could be driving dynamics).
- Solution – How are you answering this question? For example, you could describe your use of field surveys, experiments or modelling. You may also talk about why you use a particular system.
- Summary and benefits of this knowledge – What have you found? Why is this work useful? What are you looking into next? Try to draw it back to your hook.
- The stage of your career (optional). For example: “I’ll be finishing my PhD this spring and will be looking for a postdoc position.” This can be useful if you are about to transition to a new stage in your career; the listener may be a potential advisor or collaborator.
- Misjudging your audience and using too much jargon. It is extremely important that you tailor your pitch to your audience and the situation. Using too much jargon or starting your pitch too narrowly is the easiest way to get glazed eyes. In general, I try to err on the side of being simple and broad in scope; if your audience is already familiar with your system/questions they will tell you. At conferences, there are a number of ways to judge your audience. First, you can assume that everyone at ESA will be familiar with basic ecological concepts (e.g. undergraduate-level ecology) and drivers of global environmental change. Second, where you meet the person can give you information. For example, if I meet someone during a coffee break at a disease section, I probably don’t need to explain the term “epizootic.” At the aquatic ecology mixer, I probably don’t need to describe “Daphnia.” If you are having a hard time judging your audience, ask questions (e.g. Are you familiar with Daphnia?).
- Too much information. Keep it short! The point of an elevator pitch is to help spark a conversation, not describe every tiny result of your last experiment and the 5 follow-up experiments you have planned. If they want to know details, they will ask.
- Downplaying the importance of your work. It is very common for people early in their career to add too many caveats. For example, you want to avoid things like “I’m just an undergrad,” “I only measured this one thing, and lots of other factors are probably more important,” “You should probably just talk to my advisor, she knows more about this than I do” etc. Downplaying your importance of your work is a way of asking people to not judge you harshly, but at the same time it also tells them not to take you seriously. It doesn’t matter where you are in your career – you know your work better than anyone else.
Practice makes perfect! Unless you are a natural extrovert, talking about your work can be stressful and intimidating, particularly when you are trying to impress the listener. Practice your elevator pitch on your friends, labmates, and family. Make the effort to meet new people at science events- it will get easier.
Despite your best efforts, not everyone will be interested in your work. Don’t be discouraged if one listener doesn’t seem excited or appears to be looking around the room while you are talking to them (this is very common at meetings – they may just be looking out for a friend, but are still interested in what you’re saying). Some people also look bored or grumpy when they are thinking hard, so a sour face can actually be a good thing. Alternatively, some people may simply be uninterested in your research, just like you might be uninterested in theirs.
Finally, remember to have fun! Scientific conferences like ESA are great places to learn about new and exciting research, and also to meet potential collaborators and friends.
What are your tips for elevator pitches? Do any of you have pitches you could share? Do you have any stories of good/bad experiences with elevator pitches?