Like so many, many things related to doing a PhD, people talk a lot about how important a good ‘elevator pitch’ is – but tend to be silent on the subject of  how to actually do it. As you may have worked out by now, that sort of empty advice tends to frustrate me. So I thought I would write today about how to craft a good, short research sales pitch.

The idea of the elevator pitch is to compress your research topic, interests and even findings into a short speech you could tell another researcher (preferably a senior one) while standing in a queue at the conference tea table, or waiting for a lift.

The elevator pitch is not meant to explain your whole thesis, but tell people enough to  pique their interest and get them to want to know more. It is often trotted out as a must-have research skill; important professors at conferences are busy people and unlikely to listen to a rambling account of your research thoughts and troubles (that’s the job of your supervisors).

I call the elevator pitch the “BBQ speech” in my workshops, partly because I am Australian, but mostly because I think the best pitches are in plain language. At least plain enough that so that any person with a college level education can understand it.

Many PhD students don’t realise that, even if a professor is an expert in your field, they are unlikely to be into the minutiae of the problems in the way a PhD student is. Therefore plain, but intelligent language is likely to be appreciated by everyone.

A lot of attention has been focused on the skill of the elevator pitch lately because of the 3 minute thesis competition. Each of the 42 universities who hand out research degrees in Australia are currently in the process of choosing finalists to send to University of Queensland, where they will compete to see who is the grand champion. Have a look at the previous winners at the University of Otago and the University of Queensland (bottom of the page)

As part of this process at RMIT university, I offered a series of workshops in our On Track Program. Being a fan of the ‘import – export” model of creativity, I looked to marketing literature for ideas on making a good research pitch.

In the business library I came across a book called “Made to Stick: why some ideas survive and others die…” by the brothers Heath. The book explores the extraordinary stickiness of urban myths and  is a good fun read.

But since you are probably too busy with those papers on global terrorism or particle physics, here are the main points re-purposed for the task at hand:

1) Start by thinking about why the research needs to be done: 3 minutes is not a long time – just enough to get across the core ideas of your thesis. The Heath brothers point out that there is an awful lot of information out there; certainly the attention economy of academia means there is less and less time available to make yourself heard. By side stepping your thesis statement and thinking about why it needs to be done, you start to explain why you would bother spending three or more years of your life exploring the topic. These reasons will probably interest others too.

2) Tell a story related to your research: Humans love a good story – probably because we spent millions of years of sitting around campfires with no TV. A well chosen story can warm up the driest topic. One student studying quantum mechanics and cryptography at RMIT did a pitch which started with a story about what happens when someone steals your credit card. Instantly the audience hung on every word! Which leads me to …

3) Make us care. If you can get your audience emotionally involved in the topic you are halfway to winning. The two easiest ways to get people to care is to a) hitch your thesis topic onto an ongoing community concern (there are heaps of these – climate change, crime, health care, education etc) or b) appeal to their self interest. Self interest is easier… If your topic is related to pain management, money saving, identity issues etc you can easily work these self interest reasons into your pitch.

4) Try to make the abstract concrete: Talking about statistics can be difficult, but numbers come alive when you give real world comparisons. I could say “The human gut ranges between 7.5 and 8.5 meters long” or I could say “Stretched out, the human gut is taller than a two storey building”. I know which sentence would make me want to hear more.

5) Use the power of the unexpected. Since we are not toddlers we cannot scream for attention, we need to seduce it. A good way is through surprise. The Heath brothers explain that humans are ‘guessing machines’ and that the easiest way to get attention is to unsettle expectations. I studied gesture for my PhD and my favourite unexpected fact is that blind people gesture – even when they are on the phone to other blind people. Instantly you have to wonder -why would blind people do it? When I asked research students in the workshop what they knew that I might not, I learnt many strange things – like if you eat silver your skin turns blue and that more men than women are sex workers. I’m sure you have these fun facts buried somewhere in your research – use them.

So I hope this post helps you with one of the most annoying questions at social events: “Are you still doing that PhD?”. Rather than just saying yes and heading for another serve of potato salad, try telling Aunt Betty what you are actually doing next time. If nothing else it wards off those moments of awkward family silence!

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