Communication Time to Perfect Your Elevator Pitch

By Kuk Jang

During my time at Penn, I often have had to introduce myself and the research I am pursuing on the spot. Either I would run into someone at a conference who was interested in my work or be in a meeting where the host would suddenly ask us all to go around the room and introduce ourselves. In the latter case, I would concentrate so much on figuring out what to say before my turn that I wouldn't hear what other people were saying.  

Initial impressions are quite important in academia. We spend a lot of our time in brief interactions with other researchers and colleagues. This means our opportunities to leave a lasting impression are limited. Besides, having to think of what to say whenever you introduce yourself is exhausting, so investing the time and effort to craft your "elevator pitch" beforehand can be very helpful. 

An elevator pitch is a short summary of an idea or project that can be delivered and understood in the time span of an elevator ride (1 to 2 minutes). The goal is for this brief introduction to intrigue the listener (often assumed to be someone important) so they want to hear more or be generally excited about the topic and continue the conversation. In a graduate school setting, a well-crafted elevator pitch can lead to more opportunities for collaboration and maybe even a coveted job. However, most graduate students aren’t instructed on what should be included and how to structure their pitch. 

I had the opportunity to organize a workshop event with Margaret Janz from Penn libraries and Dr. Helen Pho from Penn Career Services, to go over the basics of crafting one's elevator pitch and some important tips and strategies. Here, I’ll discuss some of the key takeaways that I found to be most interesting. 

A universal communication tool 

While preparing for the event and during, I realized that an elevator pitch is useful for many other cases. Initially, I only thought about one-on-one meeting settings, but the same elevator pitch could be used to write a compelling summary for a LinkedIn profile. This changed my perspective on the importance of communication. I would go so far as to say that a distinction between mediocre academics and a truly notable one is how well they can communicate their ideas to different audiences not just the intrinsic value of their work. 

Going through the exercise of crafting an elevator pitch may even be helpful in framing your own research and provide direction for future endeavors. Organizing your research and interests into a concise set of statements requires careful consideration of what is most important as well as the cohesive theme that will tie everything together. For doctoral students who eventually must write a dissertation, this could be an invaluable exercise that helps your progress toward a more complete story. It's easy to notice logical holes and what needs to be supplemented when you are trying to tell the story of your work. 

How to craft an elevator pitch 

Two people standing in front of an elevator talkingThere are multiple ways to craft an elevator pitch. Here are some basic principles to get you started. 

Know your audience and know your goals 

Knowing your audience is a basic principle of all forms of communication but is especially important for the short form of an elevator pitch. You may need to include more or fewer details depending on who your audience is and their respective background. Of course, you may have to adjust the content of your pitch on the spot. It's also important to find relevant reasons a potential listener may be interested in your work and include such details accordingly.  

The goal of your pitch will heavily influence the structure and content. A pitch in order to get hired or receive funding will be different from a pitch that is a call to action. In the former, highlighting your skills and the problems you’ve solved may be of importance, whereas in the latter, emphasis on the importance of the problem and impact may be needed. This relates to how to frame your pitch and structure the message, which is part of the next step. 

Craft your message 

Once you have an idea of the audience and goals, it makes sense to think about the actual content of your pitch and the message that you wish to convey. The workshop highlighted some questions that could be a good start to crafting the content of your pitch: 

  • What is the problem you are investigating? Why is it hard?  

  • What are the limitations of solutions today and how does your solution (or potential solution) address the gap?  

  • Why does it matter (to your audience)?  

  • What are the potential benefits of your solution? 

I found it interesting that trade-offs exist when structuring your pitch. For instance, if you emphasize the problem too much or try to instigate fear, it dissuades people from acting. Similarly, if you emphasize the solution too much, people may think the problem is already solved and ignore or trivialize your efforts. The optimal balance will depend on who your audience is and what you want them to take away from your introduction. 

There are also many strategies for structuring your message. You could make all the statements be simple and factual or you could make your pitch centered around some anecdote. For instance, if you're presenting your solution for testing autonomous vehicles, you could begin with an anecdote about how the sun shining at a certain angle caused a fatal accident as it masked a truck that was stopped along the side of a road. Your solution can show how it would prevent a situation like that from occurring again. 

Tighten the language and simplify 

An elevator pitch is supposed to be short. Once you've composed the first draft of your message, you want to go through multiple revisions to select only the most essential points. A 2-minute time limit is a good rule-of-thumb for the length.  

Not only does the message have to be short, but it should be approachable for the listener. Using active voice and avoiding overly complex words will help your audience understand what you are trying to say. A common mistake when presenting your ideas is to use field-specific jargon that can be confusing for even people who research the same topic. Here are some tools that can be used as a starting point to determine if your language is too "jargony": 

Things to Keep in Mind 

  • Tell a story: It helps to imagine that you are telling a story about your work/idea. Everyone likes a good story. 

  • Connect with your audience and pay attention to feedback (verbal and non-verbal): Regardless of how much you prepare, different people will react differently, and you may need to adjust your content depending on the situation. In the end, you want to have a conversation about your work, not a lecture. 

Networking and Informational interviews 

During the workshop, there was a segment that was particularly relevant to students who are actively looking for jobs post-graduation. Coming back to the idea that an elevator pitch is a general communication tool, platforms such as LinkedInPenn's Handshake, or MyPenn provide features that allow you to connect with potential employers and alumni. Informational interviews, conversations with current employees/employers that aren't for getting a job offer, are important when learning about jobs and gaining perspective. It's often the case that before an interview, especially when connecting through these platforms, interviewers will browse through your profile. A well-written introduction/summary on your profile can excite whoever you are talking to and lead to a more enthusiastic conversation. This could be the difference between getting a job offer and barely missing the threshold to be asked to interview. 

Whether it's for an impromptu conversation on the street or an introduction for a job interview or just organizing your research direction, crafting your elevator pitch will have numerous benefits throughout your graduate study. Whatever way one decides to compose a pitch, I think it's important to allow for your message to reflect your personality. Regardless of your actual achievements or skills, you want to communicate who you are as a person and what you value. This will not only lead to better feedback from your audience but also help you connect with the people you are meeting.  

I highly recommend listening to the workshop which is available at (PennKey login required). Additional resources and slides to the presentation can also be found at the site.  

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