What is an Elevator Pitch? As a Researcher, Do I Need One? How Do I Give One?

Imagine you’ve stepped into an elevator and standing there next to you is Elon Musk, Marissa Mayer, Masayoshi Son, or some other powerful influencer.  

You only have a few seconds to make an impression. What do you do? What do you say? 

Sound too fantastical? How about these (more realistic) scenarios:  

  • How would you approach an expert in your field and introduce yourself? 
  • At a conference, how can you promote your work to other attendees while you are away from your poster? 
  • How about your next job interview? How will you talk about yourself and your life’s work?  

In each of these cases, you need an “elevator pitch” — a short, concise explanation of the value of your work.

Don’t panic! Here are six expert tips for making that all-important first pitch. 

Tip #1: Prepare and practice a concise pitch

So how can you explain the value of your work to someone in just a few seconds? Try this phrase pattern: 

“The aim of my (work/project/research) is to (do something) to try to help (people) with (problem) so that they/we/you can (achieve something).

Prepare your pitch, and then practice, practice, practice.

Here is an example of a real-world elevator pitch by a researcher at a medical conference: 

“The aim of my study is to study possible connections between prior incidence of cardiovascular disease and current kidney complications, to help improve diagnosis and prevention.”  

The researcher in case gave this pitch while he was away from his poster, getting coffee from the drinks corner. He spotted a well-known luminary in his field — a senior journal editor. He approached this important person, smiled naturally, and introduced himself. He gave her his one-sentence elevator pitch, invited her to come listen to his poster talk, and handed her a small printout of his poster, with his business card attached. Now THAT is great preparation!

Tip #2: Make your mission statement  

Let’s go back to our question prompt: How would you explain the value of your work to someone in just a few seconds?  

Notice that “your work” can just mean the research project you are presenting at that one conference, or it could mean your entire life’s work — your overall mission statement. 

For such a mission statement, you can use the same type of pattern we used earlier for elevator pitches: 

“The aim of my (work/research) is to (do/explore something) to try to help (people) with (problem) so that they/we/you can (achieve something).

Here some real-world examples of mission statements

“I help final-year postgraduates at university to land their dream job, through careers counselling and by training them to write outstanding CVs and attractive job cover letters.”   (mission statement from a university research careers counselor) 

“I research and develop ways to deliver effective online training for researchers at laboratories and hospitals, to help them save time and increase their research impact” (mission statement from an instructional designer) 

Tip #3: Approach others with a positive frame of mind 

You have just a few seconds to start the conversation. Good (and bad) impressions are formed by other people very, very quickly —  and these first impressions of you often stick with the other person. 

Here are three quick statistics from recent research into human behavior:  

  • people are able to think up to 30% more clearly when they are in a positive mood 
  • your positive mood can actually trigger a chemical change in the other person!
  • 90% or more of human communication is non-verbal 

Take several deep breaths before you approach someone, or they approach you. Smile gently as you greet them. This will start things off on the right foot. 

Sure, it’s not always easy to look and feel relaxed and positive. But try to approach each conversation with a positive mindset.  

Tip #4: Think about what you can do for THEM 

One really important thing to think about when approaching interactions with other people, especially in a professional setting, is the fact that most people you meet will probably ask themselves of you, “How can this person help me or my mission?’  

We all have goals that we are trying to meet, or an agenda that we are trying to fulfill. By understanding this basic reality of human nature, you can move the conversation in a positive direction. Try to think about the other person’s position and how your work can benefit them. 

Here are some real-world examples: 

  • (speaking at a job interview): “So these are some of the professional and personal qualities I feel I can offer your laboratory team and your research projects.” 
  • (talking with a prospective funder) “I believe it would be worthwhile to fund this research, because it might advance the field in the following ways…” 
  • (talking with a fellow conference attendee) “…and that’s what my talk is about. So how about your talk? Where can we listen to it? I’d like to tell my colleagues about it.”

Tip #5: Leave them wanting more! 

The absolutely key, critical, never-to-be-forgotten aspect of conversations and interactions with colleagues is this:  

Always try to leave people thinking, ‘I’d like to deal with that person again in the future’.  

Even if you cannot deliver what the other person wants at that particular moment — or even if the interaction was just a casual conversation or introduction — try to always be empathetic, kind, and positive with others. This will ensure that a person will want to meet with you again. They will want to talk to you when you next have the chance to meet.  

Good things will happen in your career if you maintain this mindset in your interactions with colleagues. 

Also, don’t be afraid of disappointing someone when you first talk with them. Remember: this is hopefully just the start of an ongoing interaction, not the end!

Instead of reflexively saying “yes” or “I agree” to everything, instead try to use phrases like “I completely understand,” or “I see what you mean”. 

And if you cannot do something that someone asks, it’s okay to politely decline or defer by saying, “I’m not sure. Can I get back to you later on that?” This frees you from overcommitting, but also leaves the door open for future interaction.  

For example:  

That’s a really great question, and I’d like to give you a proper answer. May I ask for your business card so I can contact you later to talk more about this?  

Tip #6: Elevator pitches aren’t just for elevators! 

Elevator pitches and mission statements also work wonderfully well in other situations: 

  • your CV and your LinkedIn profile (put your mission statement at the top, just below your name) 
  • job interviews (list some of your career achievements, each as its own elevator pitch) 
  • social gatherings (when people ask, “So what kind of work do you do?” give them your mission statement) 

Conclusion

There is an old saying in Zen: “the most important person in the world is the person standing in front of you now.”  

Are you ready to engage with the most important person in the world? 

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