We’ve all experienced it as graduate students.
You try explaining your research to your friends and their eyes get big, as if you’ve just tried to teach them Einstein’s theory of special relativity. Or when asked about your research at a scientific conference, you’re left with empty nods and an unenthusiastic, “nice, that sounds interesting”.

An important part of graduate student life is being able to effectively explain your research to other people, whether they be attendees at a conference, a speaker you’re having lunch with, or even just Mom and Dad.

In fact, graduate students should have an “elevator pitch” ready for such situations. By “elevator pitch”, I mean a quick and simple explanation of their research, lasting no longer than a typical ride on the elevator. Of course, fitting all your research into a short 2-minute pitch is actually quite difficult. So to help take your elevator pitch to the next level, here are a few tips:

1) Start off your pitch with something identifiable, or perhaps a story

The worst thing you can do is jump right into the nitty-gritty of your research. Instead, start by relating your research to something everyone knows. A person is much more inclined to listen to you if what you have to say is somehow related to his/her life.

Stories also serve as great openers. For example, my research involves the cellular receptor known as aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AHR). But I don’t mention that at all when I start. Rather, I start with a quick story about a chemical that binds to the receptor, known as dioxin, and how it was once used to poison the Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko. Sounds way more interesting, right?

2) Make it a conversation

The surest way to lose somebody’s attention is to talk at them, not with them. Don’t just regurgitate your pitch from memory, make it conversational. A really good way to keep your listener involved is to ask questions. Not only does this force listeners to pay attention to you, but asking questions allows you to gauge their knowledge of the subject area and determine if they’re following your words or not.

3) Teach along the way

Obviously, science is a complicated subject. Not everyone is going to know the terms you begin spewing out, so be prepared to teach them along the way. When I explain my work, I realize that not everyone knows what a cellular receptor is. However, a quick hand-gesture of my fist (the ligand) fitting inside the palm of my other hand (the receptor) provides a pretty decent 2-second introduction about what a cellular receptor does. Small lessons like this can go a long way for someone without a science background!

4) Keep it simple

In science, it’s all about the details. In real life, no one has time for all the details. When giving your pitch, you should make sure to leave these out. Think about your project in its broadest terms. For example, my work seeks to understand how AHR expression in the liver influences fibroblast growth factor 21 (FGF21) regulation. We’re also interested in understanding AHR’s role in hepatic energy storage, fatty acid metabolism, glucose metabolism, and the insulin pathway. To investigate this, we use several different mouse models that carry unique genetic variations of the AHR gene, and challenge them with different diet compositions.

However, all I really need to say for my pitch is that, “We examine the role of AHR in our body’s metabolic processes by looking at how genetic variations of this gene affect the body, and how changes to our diet can further alter those effects.”

5) Be excited about it!

Another major issue I see all the time is that people show a lack of enthusiasm when giving their pitch. How am I supposed to get interested in what you do if you don’t seem interested. As much as we hate repeating our pitch over and over (especially at scientific conferences), you don’t want that to show on your face. A smile here and there, or a positive tone of voice can make a world of difference.

6) Practice, Practice, Practice!

If you want to be good at something, you have to put in the effort to practice. Your elevator pitch won’t be perfect after one afternoon. Try practicing it in the shower or in front of your pet. Once you develop your initial pitch, you should always be thinking of ways to improve upon it. The fact that you’re reading my blog post is a good sign, but don’t stop there. Seek advice from other sources, too!

7) Be flexible!

Last, but not least, be flexible. Your audience won’t be the same each time you give your pitch, therefore your pitch shouldn’t be the same either. While you should have a solid of idea of what your pitch is, don’t keep a word-for-word copy of the pitch in your head. Remember point #2, be conversational!  Be ready to take the pitch in different directions, depending upon who you are talking to.

Personally, I keep three “versions” of the elevator pitch in my head. One is really simple and fast, best used for people who know nothing about science; for people who have some semblance of scientific knowledge, I have an extended version of it. Finally, I have an entirely separate pitch that I like to use at scientific conferences.

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