Career Network for student Scientists and Postdocs at Yale

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The Elevator Pitch

Last week we highlighted how small, seemingly meaningless, casual conversations can lead to unexpected opportunities, particularly those that you can’t possibly plan for… such as bumping into someone in the elevator.

So what happens if you say “hello” in the elevator and get into a conversation, during which the other person suddenly asks you about what you do?

Well, what DO you do? (Both for work and at this very moment in the elevator?!)

This is when you give your Elevator Pitch.

What is an Elevator Pitch? It’s a short summary of your job/project/work/goals/etc. – with emphasis on SHORT!

Seriously, you have about 30 seconds to a minute before the elevator reaches your floor (or his floor) and you part ways. If this is the CEO of DreamJobX Inc., you better have a well-planned Elevator Pitch ready to go that you can deliver concisely, clearly, and confidently.

An Elevator Pitch isn’t something you should throw out there “off the cuff.” It’s best to think about what you might say in a situation like this well before it happens because once you’re in the moment, there will be time pressures on you to hurry up on top of the fact that you’ll be rapidly trying to sift through the thousands of details of your project in your mind, trying to find the right ones to highlight.

However, if you’ve thought about it beforehand, picked 1-2 highlights, and strung them together in a cohesive 30-second summary, all you have to worry about in that moment is making sure you smile, radiate confidence, and get his contact information before he leaves the elevator. 🙂

The latter situation is definitely the better route to take, so how do we prepare an Elevator Pitch?

First and foremost, it must be short!

SHORT, SHORT, SHORT! We can’t emphasize this enough. Save the details for your thesis defense, the Elevator Pitch is just a quick snip-it of the major highlights. Think about your single most important finding, and stick to that, and that alone. Again, you have about 30 sec – 1 min, tops! There’s no time to focus on much else, and trying to cram too many topics into your short pitch will make you appear scattered and uncollected.

Second, focus on the WHY.

Don’t get lost in the details of WHAT you are doing or HOW you are doing it. Focus on WHY you are doing it. If you are simply trying to figure out the manner in which protein X binds to protein Y, try again… Put your project in the big picture. Why will your data be useful to the scientific community? Why is this project important to patients suffering from xyz disease? Will your very-focused experiments change the way we think about bigger problems?

Third, leave a little to the imagination.

After you give your Elevator Pitch, you want the other person to either ask you a follow-up question or say, “Tell me more.” If you give them everything you’ve got right up front, they are either going to be completely overwhelmed or contently satisfied with the information you’ve given them – in either case, they will not want to hear any more from you, which effectively ends the conversation. Keep that in mind – this is a conversation (not a lecture) in the elevator. Leave something out or speak so broadly that the details could easily be asked about…. THEN give details (after the “pitch” itself).

Finally, say it with enthusiasm.

Often times, students and postdocs get so bogged down by the nuances and pitfalls of their projects that they forget how great the good results are. These frustrations may be our initial reaction when someone asks us how work is going, but remember that if YOU’RE not excited about your project, NO ONE will be. Additionally, you can easily censor the downsides of your project and selectively highlight the positives without the other person ever knowing. Display your project in a positive light and have enthusiasm in your Elevator Pitch. It will go a long way!

Let’s try it…

Let’s say you’re working on an axonal transport project using cultured neurons as your system of study, and you’re particularly focused on how Kinesin and Dynein (motor proteins that travel along the axons) move organelles, cellular cargo, and cell debris throughout the neuron from the cell body to the dendrites using complex in vivo time-lapse imaging techniques paired with microinjections of space-filling dyes to highlight where blockages in the axons prevent cytoplasmic mixing. Let’s also say that the last month of experiments trying to get this new technique to work have failed miserably, and you’re particularly discouraged about it. How would you spin this?

Here’s an example…

Elevator Bystander: “What do you do?”

You: “I’m a research associate at Yale University, and I work on trying to resolve blockages in individual nerve cells so that we can better understand neurodegenerative disorders. Hopefully, our data could be used to develop treatments that can either prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s and other forms of Dementia.”

There was absolutely no mention of the proteins under direct study or the methodology being used. The focus was on the big picture, which will appeal more to a broader audience, and if the audience wants more details, there is plenty of room to ask! There is far more that you could have said and could still say if you are asked further details… i.e. “Oh, interesting. How exactly are you doing that?

This is a simple example – and probably an oversimplified example – of how we all need to pull ourselves away from our projects to get a better sense of how the average person would view our studies. Nobody wants to hear that the government – and their tax dollars – are supporting failing projects, nor do they want to feel dumb if you throw out a ton of words they don’t know.

Speak on their level… don’t overwhelm them, don’t talk down to them or make them feel unintelligent, and put your project in the context of the bigger picture for them so they can relate. Odds are, most people won’t have the detailed knowledge of the specific proteins you’re working on or the techniques you’re using, but they probably know that Alzheimer’s isn’t curable, so any attempt to better understand the disease is generally going to be viewed as positive, and possibly even noble! (This bodes well for you!)

However, if they happen to be in the same field of study, or ask for more specific details, feel free to dive into the nitty gritty of your project. Just make sure that the next thing you say also isn’t too detailed and doesn’t go over their heads. Otherwise, you will lose them, and the whole point here is to make them think you are awesome and amazing in a mere 30 seconds.

So take a moment to step away from your project and view it like an outsider might see it… Think of the big picture.

Give your Elevator Pitch some serious thought, come up with something simple and quick that you can rattle off in fewer than 100 words in less than 30 seconds. That way, you’ll be prepared to pitch yourself and your work if the moment suddenly presents itself.

Good luck!


** Start working on your Elevator Pitch today and share any other helpful strategies you find with the group! **

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  1. This is very nice post. It is also very helpful for us. I have been searching this types of tutorial. Some days ago I read an article about craft the perfect elevator pitch, but this post is better than post.

  2. This is very nice post. It is also very helpful for us. I have been searching this types of tutorial. Some days ago I read an article about craft the perfect elevator pitch , but this post is better than post.

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