Photo by Cameron Venti on Unsplash.

Enter an Elevator with Confidence

By Heather Reiff

Aug 6, 2012


Minute Read


Red Cross Phlebotomist: So, do you work here on campus?

Me: Yes.

RCP: What do you do?

I pause.

I don’t know about you, but this is a tough question for me to answer in casual conversation. How much information should I give? How do I really describe my job in a few lines?

Enter: The Elevator Speech. I have only done this once in an elevator, but I frequently have this conversation at social gatherings, the hair salon, while donating blood, etc. I can only imagine you do as well… more often than you may realize.

You can find a multitude of information online detailing how to craft, perfect and deliver elevator speeches, but there is no one tried and true formula. In COMPASS trainings, however, we provide one-on-one coaching for scientists in the art of the short response. We push participants to describe their work in one minute or less in an engaging, informative way by listening and watching the people they’re talking to.

Here are a few of the COMPASS tips that I’ve used to prepare and feel confident in the delivery of my own elevator speech:

1. This isn’t about you

A key factor in delivering a pitch about yourself is that it’s not about you. It’s about who you’re talking to and what it means to them—their “so what?” Think of it as an appetizer, a couple of pithy sentences to spark hunger for the main course. You’ll know you’ve been successful if they start to ask questions and stay engaged, and unsuccessful if they nod blankly and walk away.

2. Practice makes perfect

In our trainings, we often have scientists participate in scenarios in which they are forced to interact with journalists or policymakers. One of the scenarios we use regularly places scientists next to an unexpected seatmate on a plane. Their challenge, heightened by the social-awkwardness of the situation, is to take advantage of the opportunity to talk about their research. It can be difficult to pitch the conversation at the right tone… but not impossible. Leopold Fellow Dr. Elizabeth Wilson was skeptical about this scenario when she had to play it out during her 2011 training, but it certainly came in handy when she found herself seated immediately behind Representative Rick Berg on a recent flight! She seized the moment, gaining an opportunity to talk with him about natural gas flaring in North Dakota’s Bakken shale. Practice pays off.

3. Watch, Listen, & Learn

By practicing your response in a variety of scenarios, you have many opportunities to gauge your audience’s reaction and adjust accordingly. Think of it like dance steps, as opposed to performance art – have enough situational awareness to respond to your listener, don’t just keep going. Once you’ve used a metaphor that clearly resonated with a listener- fine tune it and use it again. If someone walked away from you blankly – note what you said in that moment. How could you say it better next time?

I am constantly refining my own elevator speech using the tips above, and I used this opportunity to practice a new version on the phlebotomist. Her response made my day:
“It makes me so happy that someone is out there doing your job.”

Success! I’ll use that one again.

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