The elevator pitch: more harm than good?


There’s lots of advice out there that scientists need an elevator pitch.

What are the properties of a good elevator pitch, other than its brevity? It shows:

  • focus without appearing myopic
  • prospects for cool discoveries
  • specific and broadly applicable relevance beyond your study system

So, do all scientists really need one? Do I really have to have one? Several years ago I lost it. I haven’t been able to find it. I’ve unsuccessfully tried to come up with a good one.

The best I’ve got is: Ants are really cool. Even if you’re crazy and you don’t think they’re cool, then by looking carefully at ants in one incredibly diverse patch of forest, I am figuring out a whole bunch of new stuff about ecology. And behavior.

Clearly, that’s a sucky elevator pitch.

It’s especially sucky because then my listener will ask, “what new stuff?” I have several different answers, each of which is a pitch unto itself. If I narrow it down, though, then it doesn’t represent what I do. Does this mean that I’m a failure because I’m unfocused? Or because I can’t communicate it effectively in a couple sentences? If my lab isn’t a failure, then am I failing at marketing? One or more of those statements are probably true.

Let’s put this in context.

You might first think of a certain person when asked to name an accomplished ant biologist. In case you didn’t know, the myrmecologists’ myrmecologist is Bert Hölldobler. I haven’t asked him what his elevator talk would be. (When I’ve crossed paths with him at meetings, I have been reluctant to disturb him. Even when he’s two chairs down from me having a beer. I had a similar feeling when I walked past John C. Reilly when I was out to lunch last month. I wouldn’t want to disturb his pleasant lunch by getting all excited that I saw him, though it’s moderately exciting, like finding a bird far outside its range or or stumbling on a Leptogenys colony in your field site. I might have friends who collaborate with him or work in his lab, but still, he’s frickin’ Bert Hölldobler. I’m pleased to retain some awe in his presence.)

By all accounts, Bert is great. I bet he has a cracking elevator speech, but if he does, could it encompass all of his main questions and goals? If so, that’s got to be an amazing speech. I would think it’d be hard to get beyond “cool stuff about ants” if I were in his shoes. Then again, nobody can fill Bert’s shoes. Still, take at look at what he’s done and try to construct a good elevator speech that fits the characteristics of a model elevator pitch. Can you do better than, [assuming Bert’s German accent] “I am discovering everything cool about ants that is known to humanity.” I think cell/molecular types would have the same trouble with Sydney Brenner, though that’s far from my realm.

Of course, in scientific contexts Bert Hölldobler doesn’t need an elevator speech, because he’s Bert Hölldobler. He just has to bust it out when visiting the National Academies, hobnobbing with folks in very different disciplines. Perhaps he could use it backstage with Ringo Starr, dancing with Michelle Obama, or at a baccarat table with a Jonathan Goldsmith.

Perhaps anybody who doesn’t attain Hölldobler-like status needs to have an elevator pitch. If you don’t aggregate a crowd of politely fawning admirers when you walk around a conference, then it’s your duty.

Clearly, grad students, postdocs and junior faculty members need to have an elevator talk. I apparently do have one too, because I’m called on task to produce it on a regular basis. Its characteristics do not fit the model elevator speech. On the spot, I do one of two things: I mention the one very specific thing I’m doing right now, which is exciting to me at the moment. Or, I say I work on all kinds of ecological questions involving litter-dwelling ants in this one rainforest in Costa Rica. These are both horrible, but it’s what I do.

And you know what: I embrace the lack of an elevator pitch. The broadness of the pitch itself defines my approach to science, in both its positives and negatives.

If you work on too many things, then people will say that you can’t get stuff done for lack of focus, that if you’re a jack of all trades then you can be a master of none. Go ahead and say that about Charles Darwin, Dan Janzen, or Bert Hölldobler. Did Leonardo DaVinci have an elevator speech?  Would it be wrong to model one’s approach to science after these folks?

These scientists had the goal of solving the problems that were in their paths, which resulted in sinuous journeys far from their starting points. Some problems were more persistent, and more fertile, than others. They probably were working on a variety of questions at the same time.

Are we training new scientists to use the elevator speech to define their research trajectories? Or are we just using it as a marketing tool? I hope it’s the latter. Use your elevator pitch with caution, because if you repeat something long enough, it becomes a part of you.

While playing around with ants, I’ve seen plenty weird stuff. Many things don’t make any sense to me at all, and defy any overt explanation. Such things usually are distant from what I am working on at the time, and all of them are out of sight from my dissertation elevator pitch. But, if I am equipped to tackle it, I’m all over it. If I’m not equipped, I might try anyway.

As a scientist at a teaching institution, I’ve had the freedom to work on whatever I want. Any worries about quantity or quality of research, or funding, are those that I impose on myself. So, I have the latitude to figure out weird stuff. Once I got over the notion that I didn’t have to run a unified research “program,” but could just do any ol’ research that I felt like doing, things got fun, and I’ve been doing better science. While working on weird stuff, I stumble on another weird thing and I get to work on that.

Weird stuff about ants isn’t an elevator pitch, but it is what propels my research program.

If I can encapsulate all of the major questions that I have in my brain at a moment, what does that say about my vision of the world and what I am trying to learn? We have enough scientists who spend their careers mining small corners of existence to increase the pool of knowledge. If you’re trying to describe and cure a disease, that’s probably a good idea.

If you’re doing basic research to explain how the world works, doing research that fits the model elevator pitch can be a trap. I suggest that the biggest discoveries happen when scientists go out of the prescribed lines of their elevator pitch and do something different. I do suppose if you’re funding a big lab, this approach makes it harder to keep the money train rolling.

Especially when communication becomes limited to 140 characters, or a few sentences, I often see junior scientists confusing their specific aims with a statement of research goals or a statement of purpose.

By all means, have an elevator pitch. But, please, let it describe what you’re doing right now, not your professional identity. You are more than a brand.

Build your elevator pitch, but don’t be limited by your own hype.

13 thoughts on “The elevator pitch: more harm than good?

  1. *Man*, you’re good at this blogging thing! You’re putting the entire rest of the ecology blogosphere to shame right now in terms of posting volume and quality.

    I totally see what you’re getting at, but I actually think you could make a good elevator pitch based on “weird stuff about ants”. Not good in the sense that it would resonate with just anyone–but surely no elevator pitch would resonate with everyone. You need different ones for different audiences. But if your audience were, say, a hiring committee for an ecology or entomology faculty position, I could totally see an elevator pitch along the lines of “I work on one of the most remarkable, diverse, and successful groups of organisms on the planet: ants. For instance, [insert one or two remarkable/weird ant facts here]. Besides being fascinating in their own right, ants are a great model system for a range of questions, from optimal foraging, to the evolution of social behavior, to invasion biology, to evo-devo, to name just four. I’ve worked on various questions over the years. Both because there are so many interesting questions that can be asked about, or with, ants, and because the answers to those questions ultimately all need to fit together.” I just wrote that off the top of my head, I’m sure you could do much better. My point is that, even if your research program doesn’t feel all that unified to you, at some level I’ll bet it is, even if that level is just “it’s about ants”.

    I often feel the same way about my own research. I often say that I like having lots of medium-sized ideas rather than one big idea, and that I also like letting my students work on whatever they want rather than what I tell them to work on. But the truth is that if you step back far enough, there are some commonalities that link together everything I do. Some commonalities have to do with choice of question or study system, some have to do with choice of approach, but they’re definitely there, even though they might not all be obvious from a glance at my CV.

    I’m also interested in your anecdote about “frickin’ Bert Holldobler” and how you’re pleased to feel awed in his presence and reluctant to approach him uninvited. I certainly have people I admire a lot in science too. And yeah, I probably wouldn’t interrupt some famous scientist’s lunch purely just to say hi or shake their hand–but then, I probably wouldn’t do that with a non-famous scientist who I recognized but had never met. That is, I wouldn’t really treat a famous scientist whom I’d never met any differently than someone non-famous whom I’d never met but wanted to chat with for whatever reason.* I say this not at all as a criticism, but just because I found your remark interesting. I guess I tend to think of grad students as sometimes being a bit star-struck, but not faculty. I wonder about this in part because I’m aware that blogging for Dynamic Ecology has raised my profile. To the point where I’m starting to wonder if, in the eyes of a few people, *I’m* becoming a famous guy whom one should hesitate to approach, or treat with deference, or whatever. And I wouldn’t want that! I’m always happy for people to come up and talk to me, even if it’s just to introduce themselves and even if I’m currently having lunch or whatever. Heck, I’m *flattered* that anyone I don’t know would want to talk to me about anything (seriously)! And I certainly don’t want anybody treating me with deference! And who knows, maybe Bert Holldobler feels the same way about his admirers (who are undoubtedly both numerous and more real than my probably-rare-and-purely-hypothetical admirers!)

    *Although having said that, as a postdoc I did once ask Robert May to sign my copy of Stability and Complexity in Model Ecosystems, after he gave a seminar at my research institute. He was very cool about it.🙂

  2. Thanks much for the kind thoughts, Jeremy. Your input’s really valuable and it’s greatly appreciated. Without it, I wouldn’t exactly be sure if I was reaching people in a real sense. I think I can’t sustain the frequency and quality. I spent more time on this today than I did a manuscript, which I think is criminal. But I’ll shoot for at least three per week. I just don’t want to post something for the sake of posting.

    It does happen at least a few times a year, when a grad student contacts me and you can tell they’re excited to be talking to me, Mr. Important Expert. That’s quite flattering and it’s nice to know that someone out there is not only reading the papers, but think the work matters. Along the lines of the my Bert anecdote, what I really see as a validation of what I do is a story that a friend of mine told me. Bert was visiting to give a fancy distinguished speaker talk and was being shown around, and went out for a walk in the woods. In the middle of conversation, when they were talking about genus X species Y, Bert said, “have you read the work by Terry McGlynn on genus X species Z? It’s great…” and then went into some detail how what I was doing. He had no idea that his interlocutor was a very good friend of mine. That’s pretty awesome. That can keep me going for years on end, especially when all of that stuff was a side project done on a lark.

    I could have easily joined in on a few conversations with him now and then, when we’ve been at the same place at the same time. I’m sure he would think it’s silly as he’s very down to earth and if I wanted to chat him up, he’d enjoy it. (For me, it’d be easier to chat up Ed Wilson, because his work is ambitious but has a lot of flaws.) Hölldobler is both flawless and thorough as a scientist, and always sees both the forest and the trees (rather, the individual ants, the colony, the population, and the community). Agreed, when people don’t interact with me as openly as they could because they’re overly deferential (which does happen on occasion), it does make me uncomfortable and that might be why I try to be as folksy as possible when meeting new people. Enough scientists are trying hard to be eminent and important, that it might get in the way of making friends and connections. Whenever I see a famous person (in my corner of LA, once every year or two I think), I feel badly for them because they have to hide. I feel guilty for even recognizing them. I imagine that famous scientists need to protect themselves from the fawning junior academics too. For the very small number of people who are really impressed by what I’ve done, I want to get past that phase as quickly as possible.

    The way that people judge elevator pitches, when I say that my research is designed to work with rainforest ants, then I’ve broken the rules of the genre already. Give me three minutes and I can make them care. I could weave a common thread about community ecology of ants. But I’m fed up with the fleeting nature of theories in community ecology that I don’t even want to sell myself as someone testing those theories. When I’m in a situation in which I need to impress, then I shoot for something along the lines you mention. I mention a few key findings, and say that I’m following up on them. But that’s backwards-looking, but with a broad agenda, that’s the only way to communicate that you’re serious.

  3. Re: wondering if you’re reaching anyone, give it time! It took me months of writing for Oikos Blog (where I started out) to build enough of an audience that I could count on most of my posts attracting a few comments.

    Re: just posting for the sake of posting, I do precisely that, but I think I’m the only ecology blogger who does. The more regularly and frequently you post, the faster you’ll build an audience, and the bigger your audience will be. That’s one of the few universal laws of blogging. That’s why we do the Friday linkfest posts on Dynamic Ecology, for instance. It’s easy and quick to post some links and comment on them briefly, so it’s an easy way to help keep our posting frequency high. And that’s why I sometimes just do short, silly posts (though less often than I used to, now that Dynamic Ecology is a group blog). I do it not because I want an audience just for the sake of having an audience. It’s not like whoever dies with the most pageviews wins, and it’s not like my head of department expects me to report the size of my blog audience to him. It’s simply that, when I have something substantive to say, I want an audience to be there to hear it. It all comes down to how much you care about having an audience. Some bloggers don’t care at all, which is totally fine. Don’t get me wrong, you certainly could build a good-sized audience just doing one post every couple of weeks, or maybe even less, as long as it was substantive. That’s what many ecology bloggers do, and they’ve built up good-sized audiences. But if you want the biggest audience you could possibly get, then I think you’ll need to keep doing multiple posts/week, if necessary by posting just for the sake of posting.

    Note as well that only doing short, non-substantive posts probably won’t build you much of an audience, no matter how often you post. At least, that’s been my experience. You need a reasonable frequency of substantive posts, plus however much less-substantive stuff is required to maintain whatever overall posting frequency you want.

    You could also consider engaging in a bit of self-publicity early on, to help get things off the ground. If you put a notice on Ecolog-L about your new blog, you’ll probably get hundreds of people clicking through to check it out. I’d only do this once, I certainly wouldn’t post to Ecolog-L every time you do a new post or anything like that. But I think it’d be fine to do it once, just to get the word out initially.

  4. This is all so incredibly helpful. I won’t be at ESA this year, but at some point I’ll need to buy you not just a beer, but a keg or something.

    That is a good point, if regular visits come and don’t see things, then it won’t be visited as regularly. Most people don’t RSS or find it on twitter or whatnot. I realize that this is what, say FSP did on a daily basis and I was okay with it. Sometimes consequential, sometimes less so. More people will know about the consequential things if it’s consistently fresh.

    I didn’t do this until I personally committed to the long haul. I have a variety of motives, and the biggest one is actually to increase the “broader impacts” on the development of early-career scientists. People don’t know what day-to-day life is like at teaching schools, even though so many people end up there. This should be a start of the conversation at the beginning, and R1 faculty who are advising their own students don’t get it either. Just because I went to Occidental didn’t make me qualified to know what life as a professor at Occidental is like. I think I had some kind of idea, but I didn’t, and I had the benefit of some great mentors along the way to give me guidance. Also, like you say, more people will know about my work, too. That can’t be bad.

  5. You went to Occidental? Then you’ll appreciate this old post:

    Although as your own blogging illustrates, small colleges vary a lot. As you say, being a student at Occidental doesn’t necessarily reveal what life as an Occidental prof is like. But it sounds like working where you do might not reveal much about the life of an Occidental prof either!😉

    Re: getting the word out about your blog, do you automatically tweet your new posts? And I don’t see any buttons near the top of your sidebar for people to subscribe to your RSS feed or email feed, or follow you via WordPress. You should definitely add those.

  6. I’m tweaking things as I learn more – the input is awesome.

    Yeah, my job is a jazillion miles away from what Oxy is like. I actually spend plenty of time at Oxy now – when I need to go somewhere to write, and I collaborate with folks there. (And, it was really fun to teach a course there last year as an adjunct, the same one I took as an undergrad.) I think life for faculty at Oxy isn’t that different from my other two gigs before, at USD and Gettysburg.

    I think liberal arts schools make so many PhD students because of the personal connections that students make with faculty, that can’t happen elsewhere. (That in itself is a whole other set of posts…)

  7. Gettysburg! I’m from not too far from there. Used to go to summer camps at F&M, school trips and high school x-country races on the battlefield, trips to Amish country in Lancaster…

  8. This was a great post, but my favorite part was this paragraph:

    “As a scientist at a teaching institution, I’ve had the freedom to work on whatever I want. Any worries about quantity or quality of research, or funding, are those that I impose on myself. So, I have the latitude to figure out weird stuff. Once I got over the notion that I didn’t have to run a unified research “program,” but could just do any ol’ research that I felt like doing, things got fun, and I’ve been doing better science. While working on weird stuff, I stumble on another weird thing and I get to work on that.”

    This has been my experience as well, and I suspect we’re not the only ones.

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