Your academic elevator speech

As a new grad student–or an older grad student in a new venue like a national meeting–you need to meet people. Science, after all, is a social enterprise in which you exchange ideas, review other peoples work, collaborate on experiments, and work together on often tedious but necessary committees. Getting to know the folks in your field, and getting them to know you, is an under-appreciated part of the process.

A second under-appreciated part of the sci-biz is the importance of the first impression. It is a truism that first impressions matter, that the first experience with another person sticks in your brain and colors your opinion and expectations. ResearchImage by Bertran Gawronski at U. Western Ontario suggests that subsequent impressions that conflict with the first one tend to be explained away as one-off phenomena, exceptions to what that person is really like, good or bad.

So if a basic part of science is building networks of colleagues, and first impressions matter, it is key to be prepared for the inevitable encounter with folks you want to get to know. As silly as it sounds, it is important to craft, memorize, and practice, your academic elevator speech (named for the amount of time you have between recognizing someone who is a captive audience and the time before the elevator doors open again).

Here’s what you should look for in an elevator speech.

  1. It should take about 30 seconds to say in a conversational tone. Brevity is key, and every word matters.
  2. It should start with a memorable hook, the first impression of your first impression. The phrase “I study the biogeography of salt.” stands a better chance of catching somebody’s interest than “Ionic requirements are pervasive among all of life, most notably consumers, and given that sodium is distributed nonrandomly in the biosphere, it stands to reason that salt limitation will vary as well.”
  3. It should lay out the problem in a sentence or two.
  4. It should say why this is important, to you, to the world, or both.
  5. It should conclude with where you are in the process. Are you finishing your first paper? Just getting started? Looking for post docs? Each of those gives your listener an opening to continue the conversation (“That sounds interesting, can I see the MS?”,  “Have you thought of…”, “Sure, I have a pot of money but, up to this moment, no idea of how to spend it…”).

That’s a lot to say in a short time, but just as it’s important to market test your title and abstract (to make sure your paper’s first impression is the one you want) you need to do the same with your elevator speech.

Let me know how it goes.

Also check out:

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4 Responses to Your academic elevator speech

  1. Great post, Mike. I love this blog, and think the whole archive is a trove for how young scientists should think about their career.

  2. Leonardo says:

    Well I think that social connections are of utmost importance, and first impressions (FI) are essential, you should guide yourself by catching the first impressions about the people you meet. But FI are much much more than words, moreover without words you can have a strong FI, so I think than better than have a pre-canned speech is to be natural, be natural and don’t worry about what you say because first impressions pass through the words you say.

  3. [...] Dave Hone also has some good tips for connecting at meetings, while Mike Kaspari explains why you should prepare and practice your “elevator speech” before …. [...]

  4. [...] lots of advice out there that scientists need an elevator [...]

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