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Going Up! Elevator Pitches for Scientists

The concept of the elevator pitch originated in the world of business but has quickly caught on in the scientific community. Elevator speech contests have even been established. For example, the American Society for Cell Biology holds one at their annual meeting, and students at The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Houston participated in an elevator speech contest as part of their annual research day.

What is an elevator pitch? And why do I need one?
An elevator pitch or speech is a quick synopsis of your research, usually under 2 minutes in length. The idea is that you should be able to summarize your research to anyone, scientists and non-scientists alike, in the time it takes to ride an elevator between floors.

Because so many scientists use field-specific terminology (jargon), it can be hard to explain their research quickly and clearly to people without losing their attention. It’s important to have a quick summary ready when meeting fellow scientists at meetings or potential employers and collaborators. Your family would definitely appreciate the short version of your research, too. Give your artist cousins a break!

Crafting a successful elevator pitch
When preparing your speech, see if you can answer these questions. What is the problem I am trying to solve through my research? Why does it matter? What are possible solutions to the problem? What are the benefits of solving the problem? First, make a list of all possible answers to the questions, and then determine which ones are the most important. As an example, say you were researching microplastics in the oceans to determine whether they affect fish health in aquaculture. The problem you are trying to solve is how microplastics affect fish health. Why does it matter? If microplastics affect aquaculture’s success, it could have economic effects. In addition, if the fish are affected by microplastics, the health of humans who consume them may be affected. A possible solution might be the measurement of microplastics in the water and in fish tissues. The benefits of solving the problem will allow us to understand how plastics are affecting our health and hopefully convince people to get rid of single-use plastics. Here are some examples of award-winning elevator speeches:

2012 ASCB Elevator Speech Contest 1st Place (Long) - Navneeta Pathak

2016 Elevator Speech — Stephen DelSignore (Winner!)

2012 ASCB Elevator Speech Contest- 1st Place (Short) Kiani Gardner

Michael McGuire - Elevator Speech

No jargon
Sometimes scientists seem to be speaking a foreign language with all the jargon they use. For example, a biologist might say to a colleague, “I’m working on a phylogenetic tree for Coleopterans using the neighbor-joining method.” Say what? If your audience is not a scientist in your field, it would be better to state this as, “I use computers to determine how beetles evolved and how different species are related to one another.”

Tailor your speech for your audience
It’s best to have more than one elevator pitch ready for different audiences depending on the goal of the pitch. For example, your elevator pitch to a potential thesis adviser would be different from the one you deliver to a potential investor for your biotech start-up.

Preparation and practice for the win
Jot down the speech in point form. You don’t want to memorize full sentences because it can come off sounding unnatural. Once you have your speech written out, practice, practice, and practice some more. It doesn’t hurt to have an audience to practice on either. Maybe your cousin who is a writer? With practice, you’ll gain confidence and deliver a great speech.

Two languages are better than one
English is the official language of science, but the language that you work in may not be. It’s best to prepare your elevator pitches in both English for international conferences and colleagues and in the language of your institution or region. That way, you’ll be ready for anything.

Happy elevator riding!

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