how to sell your thesis in 3 minutes (or less)

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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15 thoughts on “how to sell your thesis in 3 minutes (or less)

  1. Michael Perre says:

    Dear Dr Inger,

    One of the things that is always on my mind is that my PhD topic needs to make an original contribution. I feel as though if I tell someone about it, they’re grab it an publish it before I get a chance to complete my thesis. Sure its unethical for them to do it, but whats to stop them? Sure it goes against the idea that the more knowledge you share the more you get back in return, but I don’t want my hard work to go up in flames because I blabed at a BBQ!

    Please slap me about the head and tell me I’m wrong here 🙂

    Kind Regards,

    • ingermewburn says:

      It’s actually a good question! I can’t head slap you upside the head because it is a fear that many PhD students have. It seems stronger in the sciences than in other disciplines though (there’s a whole blog post as to why this might be the case, so I wont go into it here).

      I guess you ultimately have to make the decision how much you tell anyone, but I would say three things. Firstly we know how much development has to go into finding a good topic and having the resources and knowledge to carry it out. It’s not easy to boot up a whole thesis from a 3 minute pitch. Secondly, researchers will take different approaches to the same idea so that the theses that will result are likely to be as distinctive as finger prints. Finally there’s evidence in the literature on examination that examiners tend to cut students slack in this – realising that many people might be working the same patch so to speak.

      That all being said – it’s a fear that is unlikely to go away until you have your examination reports back I’m afraid…

      A week before I was due to submit my thesis a journal came out with 8 papers in it all closely related to my topic. I freaked out! There was not even time to digest the findings that were relvant to my work. But my supervisor suggested I cite the journal in my introduction and use it to build a case for the importance of the research I was doing: “look how many other researchers are interested in this topic! It must be important”. This seemed to work – at least the examiners didn’t bat an eye 🙂

    • Jose says:

      Teacher Ninja– Awful Library Books is cracking me up, epecsially in light of my recent weeding project at my new post. I have over 8000 books (from a total of 22,000)that Ive identified as possibly needing to go. The sites are great. Thanks for adding to my already too full reader and podcast list. I guess it’s time to weed them too, but Teacher Ninja DEFINITELY stays.

  2. M-H says:

    A woman whom I grew up with has come to her PhD at about the same time as I have, and, amazingly, she’s doing it in the same discipline and on a very closely related topic. In fact, we would both say we are doing a PhD in Education about doing a PhD. However, our viewpoints, methods, methodological approach and thesis structures are very far apart. We cross-fertilise each other’s ideas without the least need to compete.

  3. Arwin Kim says:

    I guess it’s too risky to buy a thesis that it’s not our authentic work. it’s getting worse if committee discover it. should be wise to use for reference only.

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