Thursday, October 25, 2012

Your Elevator Speech

I've mentioned what is known as an "elevator speech" previously in the context of having a short description of a presentation you might be giving at a conference. I suggested that it would be worthwhile to have a one or two sentence description of your presentation to use in conversations during mixers or in the event you meet a potential employer or representative of a funding agency.

Having a well-thought-out speech that describes your work in brief, clear, simple terms is essential in a fast-paced, short-attention-span world. Most people, particularly those outside your area of specialty, are not going to want to listen to you hem and haw about what your work is all about. Few people are able to provide an off-the-cuff description of a complex topic in a way that the non-specialist will fully understand or appreciate. The rest of us need to plan and practice.

I recall distinctly when the idea of an elevator speech occurred to me (although I did not think of it in exactly those terms and had never heard that phrase before). I was working as a research associate and was returning from a field trip with a professor and one of his graduate students. It was late, around 9:00 pm, and we were passing through a swampy area locally known as a popular dumping ground for serial killers, when our vehicle suddenly conked out. There was little traffic, and in any case, no one was going to offer assistance to three scruffy looking people dressed in old, muddy clothes. We were about six miles from the next populated area likely to have a telephone (this was way, way before cell phones). It took us a couple of hours, but we finally made it to a public telephone and called a tow truck.  Once we got our vehicle hooked up, we all piled into the tow truck cab and headed back to campus.

During the drive, the tow truck driver asked us where we were coming from and what we were doing out in that area.  The professor explained that we were from the university and were returning from a field trip to conduct some research.  The driver then asked what kind of research.  The graduate student, who was quite full of himself, launched into a description of his research project, which was the reason for our field trip.  He explained that we were studying "anaerobic metabolism in Species name" and proceeded to talk about enzyme assays, adenine nucleotides, and various soil chemistry parameters.  You can imagine the puzzled look on the tow truck driver's face.  The professor just shook his head and  said, "We are trying to understand why our coastal wetlands are disappearing."  The truck driver flashed him a look of relief and said, "Oh, right. Now I understand.  That's really great what you are doing.  I do a lot of fishing at the coast and know that the marshes are really important."

That interaction stuck with me.  In the next post, I'll describe how I tried to train my own staff and students in the art of talking to non-specialists.

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