Criteria for Success
A successful elevator pitch…
- Gets a stranger excited about your ideas.
- Uses simple language that is familiar to your audience.
- Includes a concise phrase that captures the value of your work or idea.
- Is executed in ~20 seconds.
An “elevator pitch” can be any verbal description of who you are, what you do, and why you do it, but in all scenarios you have one purpose: secure the interest of the listener. A successful pitch should draw them in to hear your whole story. It doesn’t matter if you are introducing a professor to your poster at a conference or just chatting with a friend: your goal is to share your science in a way that your audience can access and get excited about.
Analyze your Audience
A successful pitch prompts the listener to respond, “Interesting—tell me more!” All decisions about content and delivery should be based on what will engage your audience.
First, select pitch content by answering questions like “what aspect of my work will be most exciting to my audience?” When preparing a pitch to be delivered formally to a group, choose an aspect of your big problem and an application or advantage of your new thing that will interest the majority of the audience. When giving a pitch in a personal conversation, your pitch should be tailor-made for the specific person.
The way we write is different from the way we speak. When drafting your pitch on paper, you might find that your sentences and words tend to be longer and more complicated. This structure is nearly always overly rigid for a pitch and will feel forced when you try to deliver it aloud. Additionally, your audience will have difficulty following your ideas. Keep the sentence structure and words simple so that your delivery feels natural and your audience can follow the ideas you are presenting.
Keep it concise
Start by drafting a pitch. Don’t overthink it. Just jot down how you might respond to someone asking, “Hi. What are you working on? And why is it important?”
You may come up with something true and interesting, but long and involved. Listeners have a short attention span. To maximize your audience engagement, your pitch should not be longer than about 20 seconds.
To pare down your draft, cross out all the nonessential words until you feel you cannot cross out any more. Don’t worry about leaving complete sentences or phrases—push yourself to cut as much as possible. Now that you have a small handful of key words, insert as few words as possible to link together these concepts. Keep in mind that you are free to play with the order of your key words, leave out some where you see redundancy, or even decide that you do not need them after all.
Author Tip: I find it easiest to start with my one-sentence project summary and then add the motivation pieces I need to create value for that idea.
A new generation of nuclear reactors designs has the potential to provide low carbon energy more safely and affordably than the existing fleet of nuclear reactors. The FHR is a salt-cooled, high-temperature reactor that uses a new combination of coolant and fuels, and is designed with fully-passive safety systems to ensure safe operation under any possible conditions. I am studying how the high-temperature salts and fission products inside the reactor will interact with different metal alloys to help us determine what materials to use when designing and building FHRs.
Limit new terminology
People will not understand your pitch if you try to introduce too many new things. Look back at those key nouns and verbs previously identified, and assess how your audience will relate to those words. Try to limit the number of definitions and amount of jargon in your pitch.
How many definitions—words followed by a clarifying phrase—are in your pitch? You can keep one of those, but for the rest, toss the defined word or phrase, and keep the clarifying phrase.
Tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen produced in the reactor, must be continuously removed from the reactor to prevent corrosion and unexpected releases to the environment.
Are there any specific terms that you think your audience will not understand? We will call those words “jargon.” They need to be replaced or removed.
There is obvious jargon, which are words completely foreign to your audience, such as “ECCS” or “Doppler Broadening Resonance Regions.” These are useful in highly specialized arenas, but are not helpful for most audiences. Often you can substitute these words with less specific words or cut them from the pitch altogether.
There is also insidious jargon, which are words that have a different definition in your field than they do in the general population. For example, describing something as “safety-related” implies specific (and critical) things to people in the nuclear power industry that the general population or even other scientists and engineers may not expect. While wearing a hard hat in a plant may be related to safety, calling it “safety related” may trip up people in the nuclear industry. Conversely, describing a component as “safety related” to a member of the general public may not convey the importance of the component and the high standards that the design, manufacturing, and maintenance of the component are held to. Using these words will not only lead to a miscommunication, but will be a distraction from your pitch.
In conversation, we change our energy, speed, and volume naturally when speaking casually. When we have a more formal venue, our focus or our nerves can make us fall flat and bore our audience. Practice dynamics and delivery. Give your serious, concerned face when you talk about your big problem. Pick up the energy when you introduce your ideas. Smile when you share your vision for a better future.
And lastly, practice—again!