Cover Story

Elevator speeches made easy

You're almost to the elevator when you see him. There he is, Dr. Bigwig, head of the psychology department at Prestigious University. You'd recognize those unruly eyebrows anywhere. At the moment, they're sardonically suspended mid-forehead like two quizzical caterpillars. "Going up?" he asks. You take a deep breath and step into the elevator. Now what?

If you're Daniel Gandara, an industrial and organizational psychology student at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, you know just what to do: Introduce yourself and tell him about your fascinating research. For Gandara, that means talking about how to make teamwork more effective: He co-manages a National Science Foundation-funded research group that is investigating how students from different disciplines work as a team to make tough ethical decisions.

Gandara has given his elevator pitch dozens of times. "Most of the time, I'm very outgoing," he says. And his gregariousness has paid off. Gandara found some of his current collaborators by pitching his research to students from other I/O programs.

So next time you find yourself in an elevator with Dr. Bigwig, do as Gandara does and sell yourself. Pitch your research, your awesome skills working with troubled teens or your brilliant idea to bring better health care to Native Americans. And remember that elevator pitches aren't just for elevators, they can be useful at conferences, poster sessions, media events or even happy hours—any time you need to get a message across quickly. Here are some tips to help you craft the perfect pitch:

  • Be prepared. Some people, when put on the spot, speak intelligently and concisely. The rest of us become blathering idiots. How can you avoid stuttering through your two-minute window of opportunity? Be prepared. You already know what your research is about, but take the time to write it down, says Patricia Robinson, a masters-level counselor in San Ramon, Calif., who has blogged about elevator pitches. You don't have to have a script, she adds, but jot down the key points.

  • Think big picture. Elevator pitches are meant to be short. Tammy Allen, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, who has mentored many graduate students, recommends keeping your pitch to just one or two sentences. That gives the listener time to ask questions. So scrap the details and focus on the big picture. "You don't want to give them your abstract," says Brad Klontz, PsyD, a clinical psychologist, peak performance coach and expert in financial psychology. Instead, Klontz says, think about what you might write in the discussion section of a paper. If you're looking for a job, pick two or three tidbits that would make you a valuable employee. If your listener wants more detail, he or she will ask for it.

  • Say why your work is important. The significance of your work is evident to you but maybe not to others, Klontz says. "Focus on how your research is going to shed light on a problem that people care about," Klontz says. Allen recommends framing your research in terms of the question you're trying to answer. "It makes it more intriguing to people and easier to understand," she says. If the listener is in the same field as you, describe what makes your research distinctive, says Hiram Brownell, PhD, a professor and psychology search committee chair at Boston College.

  • Know your goal. Do you want to share your research? Secure more university funding for graduate students? Nail down a postdoc position? Find a collaborator? Land an internship? Or are you just networking? Elevator pitches are extremely versatile. Once you know what your goal is, you can tailor your speech to reflect it.

  • Practice, practice, practice. Rehearse your elevator pitch in front of a mirror (or, if you're a brave soul, in front of friends) so you become polished. Practice can also help calm your nerves when it comes time to deliver. But you don't want to sound like a robot. Robinson recommends memorizing key points rather than a full script.

  • Avoid jargon. Long, technical terms may sound impressive, but they won't help anyone understand your research. "Quite often, psychologists need translators," Klontz says. "We forget that the average intelligent person has no idea what we're talking about." Robinson is interested in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, but she would never say that when talking to a potential client. "It would be meaningless," she says. Instead she explains that she is a licensed therapist who helps people with Asperger's and autism succeed at work and in social settings. More sophisticated language may be appropriate when you're talking to another psychologist, but don't assume that the terminology is the same for every field.

  • Know your audience. "You might have a very different message for a reporter versus a funding source versus a faculty member who you want to collaborate with," Klontz says. Just as you might have several resumes, you should have several versions of your elevator pitch ready to go. These versions should be tailored for different audiences and different goals, Robinson says.

  • Be enthusiastic. You've been working on this research night and day for weeks, if not years. No one would blame you for feeling a little tired of it. "It's easy to lose sight of the fact that it's probably a really interesting problem," Brownell says. However, you don't want to put your audience to sleep between floors. To recapture some of your old enthusiasm, try to remember what sparked your interest in the topic. When you give your elevator pitch, convey that passion to the listener. After all, if you're not interested in your project, why should anyone else be?

Cassandra Willyard is a writer in New York.