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.
Listen to other people describing their research and pay attention to what you like and dislike. A number of websites have examples of elevator pitches (example 1, example 2, example 3).
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?
Excellent post! Bored or grumpy look when thinking hard. Yes, that is so common. In that state, I often stare fixedly off into space with a grumpy look. The nervous conversation partner ends up turning around to see what I’m staring at and of course there’s nothing there. I try to control it, but I sometimes forget.
Also, noticed this typo that really changes the tone: “I only measures this one thing, and lots of other factors are probably more important,”
I definitely tend to look grumpy when I’m thinking hard. I tend to warn lab members about this so they don’t take it personally when we’re meeting.
Thanks for catching the typo! I just fixed it.
When I think of elevator pitches, I am reminded of the Fresh Air interview with Neil DeGrasse Tyson (http://www.npr.org/2014/02/27/283443670/neil-degrasse-tyson-explains-why-the-cosmos-shouldnt-make-you-feel-small) in which he admits to studying The Daily Show before appearing as Jon Stewart’s guest. He comes off as easy-going, a natural science communicator, but this reflects a huge amount of behind-the-scenes work — he actually timed, down to the second, the typical space between jokes on the show, and then built his elevator pitch around that cadence. Impressive!
Thanks for this Catherine and Meg, I found it very helpful. It was an interesting exercise to compare my own elevator pitch to this advice and think about how I might improve it. And it was reassuring to find that, at least in some respects, my pitch is in pretty good shape. 🙂
Re: those three common mistakes, yup! The third one is one that particularly bums me out when I hear at (as I often have when meeting students and asking them about their work). If you don’t think your own work is any good, why should anyone else?
Re: not reading too much into the expressions of people whom you’ve just met, yup. Same goes for audience facial expressions when you’re giving a talk–don’t read anything into them. Elsewhere I’ve told the story of giving a practice talk to a colleague, who sat there slack jawed throughout the whole talk, as if he was stunned by how terrible my talk was. But as soon as I finished, he said “That was great, I don’t really have any big comments.” Turns out that that’s just how he looks when he listens to a talk–any talk.
These days, you also shouldn’t read anything into the fact that everyone at your talk is looking at their electronic device of choice. If you like, assume they’re all excitedly live-tweeting your talk rather than ignoring you.
And for any students who see me in the audience at their own talks: I can be a pretty expressive listener, you’ll often see me make frowny faces or look puzzled or put my head down for a minute. That’s just how I look when I’m focused and thinking actively about what I’m hearing. Don’t read anything into it. 🙂
Bad experience/true story: Walking down hall adjacent to famous scientist, best friend/colleague of my Ph.D. advisor, who asked me, “So what do you work on?”. I managed to stammer out something. He says, “Is there actually a question?” . Needless to say I was pretty traumatized but it spurred me to think about how to state my interests succinctly, interestingly, and up-front the problem or question!
That kind of thing happens to most everyone at some point; you learn from it. It’s happened to me.
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Excellent comment and discussion. One additional point. The elevator pitch is the first step scientists need to take before trying to write a full blown presentation. It defines the content of the presentation and tells the presentation creator the points the full presentation needs to “prove.” The trouble with most scientific presentations is that the creator starts with hundreds of slides and asks, “What can I cut.” Instead they should start with the elevator pitch and “build up” for the time and capability of the audience.
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