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“So what do you do?”

Updated: Apr 29, 2020

Professor Joe Grimm, School of Journalism, MSU

If you haven’t been asked this question, you will soon. “What do you do?” is frequently the way valuable conversations begin, a chance for people to learn not just what you do but who you are, what you believe, what gets you up in the morning. Maybe you’ll be asked at a professional gathering, in a few minutes of chitchat before or after class, waiting on line somewhere, or at a party. We all know what we “do,”--kind of--but talking about it in a way other people can relate to is an actual skill.

Elevator speeches are the answer. They’re a tasty, bite size summary of your professional career and aspirations that you can give comfortably in the time it takes an elevator to go from one floor to the other. On March 19, Prof. Joe Grimm of MSU’s School of Journalism helped SciCommers create elevator speeches of their own. As a newsroom recruiter at the Detroit Free Press, Joe interviewed hundreds of people, making him an expert on how people talk about themselves. “Most people, when they're looking for workers, are looking for workers with passion and passion is usually tied up to something specific,” Joe explained, talking to us online through Zoom. Don’t just talk about your degrees or your major, talk about what gets you up in the morning, why you get a kick out of it. That can take work, especially if you’re accustomed to interacting with people who know you very well and need no any explanations of what you’re studying or why it’s valuable. Most important: don’t tell people how excited you are. Show it. Tell a story about yourself that reveals why you first became interested in what you do and your goals.

Professor Joe Grimm and SciComm members staying safe and healthy while learning about elevator pitches

Another tip: when you discuss your science, it’s normal to use specialized terms and concepts. These probably come so naturally to you that you don’t even notice you’re using them. It takes an active effort to get outside your own head and talk about your work with the kind of plain words you use in everyday conversation. It’s worth it. When you talk in ordinary language, you’re using words that your friends and family can understand.

Here’s an example: You COULD say:

“I work in Human-Centered Design to develop technological products that would foster socio-economic development in the global south.”

Of course YOU know what that’s about, but think about people who don’t know you. Your summary is filled with phrases like “technological products” or “socio-economic development” that summarize but don’t paint a vivid picture. In your elevator talk, your first goal is to paint a vivid picture.

With that goal in mind, ask, what are “technological products?” Are they computers? Programs? Smartphones? Are they things to help farmers grow crops more efficiently or help with surgery in an operating room? When you have a good answer, say it in words as concrete and particular as the thing itself. Words like “farmers” and “crops” that evoke a vivid picture.

Now do the same for the next phrase. What is socio-economic development? Does it refer to things like creating new industries? And the next phrase. What is the global south? Is it one part of the world rather than another, one country or another? If so, say it just that way.

Revising the above elevator speech, we could say,

I design computers and high-tech products so they’re easier for people to use. I want to give peasant farmers in poor countries things to help them grow bigger crops without spending more money.

Hear the difference? Now people who don’t work in human centered design have a picture in their heads of what this student does. Because they see it, they easily understand why they should care and what makes this student unique.

This is what passion sounds like and what a good elevator speech does. As Prof. Grimm says, “What do you do? How do you do it better than anybody else or differently? Why do you do that? Your passion could come from any one of those epiphanies that made you decide this is what you do.” Don’t be cool or aloof, Prof. Grimm says. Passion in your voice and in your words elevates your energy level, making you seem attractive and exciting.

With that part over, Prof. Grimm invited all students watching on Zoom (and one cat) to try their own elevator. Patrick was first up:

"I'm a biomedical engineer. I apply a multidisciplinary perspective to problems involving trauma repair and therapeutic treatment for the past seven years. I have collaborated with forensic anthropologists and cranial trauma orthopedic surgeons on soft tissue repair in tennis, on preventing hair loss with smoked patients. I’m passionate about helping people to heal after they're hurt."

Notice that last line? Awesome, Prof. Grimm says. “I’m passionate about helping people to heal after they’re hurt.” It’s short, to the point, and catches the ear with three words that begin with the same letter: “helping,” “heal,” “hurt.” It’s also the last thing Patrick said. When you put something at the start according to Prof. Grimm, it grabs their attention. When you put something last, it sticks in the memory. In addition, his summary ran about 20 seconds, just enough time for that elevator to reach the next floor.

Zooming students Chelsie, Nick and Tony chimed in at this point:

“I thought it was very nice. You started off with what you do and then you transitioned into what you want to do.”

“I liked that it functioned at multiple levels. There was enough for someone more technical, but also the ending sentence was kind of a plain description of what I do and why I do it.”

When we meet people, Prof. Grimm says, we tend to put them in boxes. Patrick’s summary sent the opposite message: I can do things but I’m not trapped in that box, only going in a direction. Elevator speeches are a good place to send that message.

An elevator pitch is only the start of getting to know someone, Prof. Grimm emphasizes. Learn your pitch but don’t worry about being perfect. Know it so well that it sounds spontaneous and not canned. If someone’s interested, ditch the pitch and be ready to tell them more. If they give you their card, be prepared to follow up with an email. He adds:

One of the good recruiters I knew worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer and he would say, “If we're at a three day convention, I use the third day to circle back and meet the best people I met on the first day or the second day. I found that to be very helpful. Cause then we're going from a one point in time, to two, three, and four when we can start to make a connection that starts to build a relationship.

Good luck with your pitching!

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