by Theresa Barosh
Communicating research effectively is crucial for getting funding, starting collaborations, and sharing with the public. Importantly, effective communication can be the difference between getting published and getting cited. As scientists, we focus most of our energy on this element of communication. Yet, we often find ourselves failing to make the effort to adequately explain our research when given the opportunity to impress outside the publishing arena. Thus, it is worth enduring a trying journey to construct an accessible, memorable elevator speech to whip out at any moment.
The goal of an elevator speech should be to give the listener just enough information so that they can ask more questions or look up the research later.
The goal of an elevator speech should be to give the listener just enough information so that they can ask more questions or look up the research later. Of course, the conversation should start with an introduction: “My name is Theresa Barosh. I’m a graduate student at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.” Being clear, and possibly even repetitive, with this information can make it easier for your listener to conduct a Google-search later. Be careful not to downplay your work or yourself; people often introduce themselves as “just” being a graduate student or a lab technician. Instead, show your passion and enthusiasm for your research, your position, and your institution.
Jargon is a huge challenge when communicating research; we are trained to use it while loading adjectives and using weak verbs but it can turn people off if they are not familiar with the language. You really need to think about the listener’s interpretation of what you are saying. It is particularly difficult to start a conversation without assuming your listener has a specific level of subject knowledge. While you want the listener to be able to follow the whole pitch, it can be difficult not to sound condescending by explaining terms that someone already knows. Defining jargon with an analogy helps make your pitch both accessible to the public and thought provoking for other scientists without appearing patronizing. A simple analogy can also help a scientist consider the basic concepts and narrow the scope of the explanation.
Defining jargon with an analogy helps make your pitch both accessible to the public and thought provoking for other scientists without appearing patronizing.
Consider one of my pitches as an example.
“Gall insects, as specialized insect herbivores, create galls in plant tissue. These galls can be compared to luxury hotel rooms that cater to the specific needs of the insect. Thus, the plant is like one big hotel. The gall insects inside get protection from the weather and lots of great room service. Yet, they usually do not pay for their stay, so the insects are like squatters: unwanted and uninvited. They order lots of food and typically leave the place a mess without paying when they are done with it. I am interested in researching what happens when there are multiple squatter families in one hotel. This represents multiple galls competing on one individual plant. Studies of gall-insect competition can address mechanisms of elusive indirect-interactions, informing the fields of evolutionary ecology and community ecology. Furthermore, knowledge about plant-insect interactions can apply to land management and aid in conservation and weed control efforts.”
This pitch defines a gall in terms that a layman can understand while simultaneously entertaining those familiar with the subject. The background is clearly and succinctly described enough that someone with interest can ask more questions if they want further details. The pitch creatively simplifies the research in a memorable way. Depending on the intended audience, the pitch can be adjusted to particularly emphasize the broader impacts of the research, an essential component of a good pitch.
Leaving an impression on your listener is paramount, but thinking long and hard about what exactly you want your listener to remember and how to emphasize that is possibly the most difficult part of the elevator speech. Consider the best story about your research. Should you focus on applications or theory? Do you want to associate yourself with a field, such as plant physiology or chemical entomology? Should the listener be aware of an important issue or a big question? What do you most want your listener to get out of the conversation? If they only take away one word, one single concept, what would that be? Merge yourself with that concept.
Consider the best story about your research…Do you want to associate yourself with a field, such as plant physiology or chemical entomology? Should the listener be aware of an important issue or a big question? If they only take away one word, one single concept, what would that be? Merge yourself with that concept.
Practice and be prepared for tough questions. Being flexible, with different prepared speeches could allow you to answer multiple questions and speak to diverse crowds. Tailoring your speech to a specific audience will help make it most impactful. Keeping it short and conversational with a natural feel will maintain your listener’s comfort. During your spiel, do not be discouraged by an odd expression. People sometimes have strange thinking faces. It can be difficult to leave a few silent seconds for reflection between ideas. Give people time to think and respond. Serious practice and thought can enhance your ability to deliver the pitch.
So, let not our research statements become dry and stuffy. Let us beat them with a broom, clean them up, add some fresh flair, and hang them somewhere new for all to see.
Schimel, J. (2012). Writing science: How to write papers that get cited and proposals that get funded. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Theresa is a PhD student in the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology, with her advisor Dr. Paul Ode in the Department of Bioagricultural Sciences and Pest Managment at CSU. Her research interests focus on plant-insect interactions, and she is currently working on nonnative Russian knapweed (Acroptilon repens) biological control with two gall-forming insects.