You’re at a conference.  You’ve met some interesting people, including the big names in your field.   You fawned over one of them earlier.  Now you are in the elevator and just as the doors are about to close the aforementioned big name jumps into the elevator with you and says “So, what are you working on?”  What do you say?

This is the moment for the academic version of the Elevator Pitch – a standard technique used by entrepreneurs, project leaders and other business people.  The idea is simple; have a quick, clear, and concise answer to the question ready to go.  It should take just the duration of an elevator ride; 30 seconds, 150 words or so.  (Yes, I know how difficult that is for an academic…)  The pitch should encapsulate:

  1. What your topic is, whether it is your dissertation topic or the latest paper you are working on.  (If you are a grad student, it had better be your dissertation topic)
  2. What your methodology is (in brief – “Case Study”, HLM, Survey….that’s enough)
  3. Why your question matters
  4. Where you are in the process
  5. What you need to get it done

This last point is important – While many people see being an academic as a solitary pursuit the process really works best when we communicate with one another.  Thus, I would argue that this skill is even MORE important for academics then it is for business people.  Our elevator pitch is the opening to the type of conversations that move the field (all fields) forward.

An example may help:  At my conference last weekend I asked a question during a session, which more or less got the attention of one of the names.  (Luckily it wasn’t a stupid question )  That afternoon he sat in the row in front of me as we were waiting for another session to start.  After getting settled, he turned around, introduced himself and asked me what my area was.  I gave him my spiel, including the fact that I was trying to narrow down a few options.  We talked for the next 5 minutes (until the session started) as well as for 15 minutes after the session, and I walked away with several good ideas and a couple of things clarified.

Your pitch will change (regularly) as you refine your ideas.  It doesn’t have to be a complete plan; in fact mentioning that you are trying to narrow something down or wrestling with an aspect is a great way to get into a conversation.  Unlike the entrepreneur version (where you are asking for money) the academic version gets the most value by starting a conversation and sharing ideas; ideas ARE the currency of academia. 

The point here is that you have to be able to get your idea out there quickly and concisely. 
It is the nature of academics to be verbose; to want to provide all the
details and to think a lot of big thoughts.  But there is a great deal
of value to be gained by having a distilled version ready to go when
you need it.  Think about what you will say the next time someone asks you what you are working on.