Much of business jargon is annoying. An example of a useful concept, however, is the “elevator pitch”. This is a brief, rehearsed statement that describes the reason why someone should hire you or buy your product, ostensibly delivered during an elevator ride when you bump into a potential client.
As scientists, we are frequently called upon to introduce ourselves, describe our career and goals, or to provide a concise description of a research project. A pithy response to these questions greatly helps other people care about your work. We are trained to use the passive voice in our papers, refer to ourselves as “we”, and make cautious statements. This appropriate scientific humility should not prevent you, however, from presenting yourself and your work in an interesting and confident manner.
This is your introduction at a group meeting around a table. A concrete use of this statement is in your capsule bio on the people page. The statement should emphasize YOU and your actions. Consider the difference between these statements:
I am Geoff Aguirre's graduate student. I work on his project on blindness and resting correlations with the frontal lobe and how it's involved in language. I analyze the MRI data that was collected by his research assistant Lauren who has now gone to medical school. I went to Yale as an undergraduate and I graduated in 2006 as a math major.
This is weak and passive. Geoff Aguirre is the actor in this statement and you are following his directions. There is irrelevant detail regarding Lauren. There is no narrative, as the information about your undergraduate work is coming at the end of the statement, and it's not clear how the math major information fits in with the rest of the statement. Now consider:
I am a Penn neuroscience graduate student. I studied predictive time series analysis as an undergrad at Yale and have a general interest in functional connectivity. With Geoff Aguirre, I am testing in fMRI data if blindness alters resting brain connectivity between visual and language regions.
In this introduction, YOU are the subject of your education and current activities. Note the difference in saying that you work “with” someone instead of you work “for” someone. There is a narrative arc, as the statement implies that your math training as an undergraduate is now being put to use. Note that the statement is shorter in length, but it contains more information. It is not boastful nor does it deny anyone else appropriate credit, but it does put you in the driver's seat of the narrative.
You will frequently be asked to describe a research project of yours. A common setting is at the poster session of a meeting. While there are longer versions of the presentation that you would give as a talk or poster walkthrough, you should have a 30-second description of the work. You'll deploy this summary if someone asks if they should come by your poster. This is also the summary to have in mind while interviewing for a job when the interviewer asks you to tell them about a given project.
This format is closer to the traditional elevator pitch that is much discussed in business circles. There are pitch “templates” out there that you should avoid. Your project pitch needs to be tailored to your particular work. Nonetheless, this FastCompany article describes a few good principles, as does this site on elevator pitch essentials. A few key features:
Naturally, the style of the pitch could differ for different audiences. If asked to describe a research project to a high-school audience, you'll choose a different “hook” and terminology.
A surprisingly challenging and valuable exercise is to craft the press release for your study. How do you describe what you did in a way that is both clear to a lay audience AND is faithful to the details? In so doing, you will often discover new ways of thinking about your project.
This example is the press release for the de Bruijn cycle work. I feel it turned out well, although I still cringe at the phrase “[a technique] more commonly used by spies than scientists”, as I doubt there are many spies using it. This phrase was one of many compromises in the attempt to craft something interesting and readable, yet accurate.