It’s finals time at Utah State University! This time of the year parking on campus is scarce, students look like crazed zombies, and most peoples social lives have been sucked into a vortex of final papers and studying for final exams. Lucky for me, besides grading a bunch of undergraduate assignments, the weeks leading up to finals week has been pretty relaxing. The one final assignment that I did have to complete took me probably a total of 20 minutes including preparation, practice, and presentation. For my translational ecology class (basically a class where we examined a framework for including feedback with non-scientists in the research process) we were expected to end the semester by giving an “Elevator Speech”.
An elevator speech is something that business people and politicians may be more familiar with than natural resources students. Here is the scenario: your at a conference or a big meeting and you get into an elevator, the person in the elevator asks you “So, what do you do?”, you have from now until the time you get to your floor (usually less than a minute) to explain to the person who you are, what you do, and why what you do matters. Not only do you have to be quick about it, but you need to explain your business idea, political suggestion, or research topic in words that the other person can understand. An elevator is an exercise in speedy rhetoric in common language.
I was pretty unsure of how to give an elevator speech about a research topic specifically. I have had to explain my research to non-scientists in the past; my family, park managers, people who are kind enough to take my survey and ask what I do. However, I was never being graded on my ability to speak in laymen terms and to do so concisely. Google was not helpful. I found a few blogs written by scientists talking about what an elevator speech was – but they contained no examples and no pointers. So I just basically went through the same speech that I give to National Park visitors when they ask me “So, what is your degree in?” Here is my elevator speech:
“My name is Ashley D’Antonio and I am a graduate student at Utah State in Human Dimensions. People in my my program all study human-environment interactions and I focus on recreation as the means of that interaction. Specifically, I look at the damage that recreation can cause to plants and soil in National Parks. Then I talk to people in National Parks to see if the damage they see impacts the quality of their visit. The overall goal of my research is to better understand how recreationist influence the environment and how environmental conditions influence recreationists. Hopefully my research can be used by management agencies such as the National Park Service to provide better quality visits to people in National Parks and to preserve National Parks for future generations.”
Everyone in my class gave an elevator speech and then we critiqued each other. Most of the students in the class struggled with finding a balance between being precise (by using jargon) and being understandable. From my elevator speech we wondered if the average layperson would understand the word “interaction.” We also discussed that interaction was not exactly the most “scientifically accurate” word to use when describing my line of research. Additionally, we debated about audience and if your elevator speech needed to vary with audience. For example, some students listed their funding sources while others did not. When talking to visitors or my family, you probably do not need to bother listening where the money came from. However, if you find yourself in an elevator in Washington D.C., then listening your funding source might be very important from a political standpoint. Finally, we all agreed that an elevator speech should not sound memorized and overly-practiced. An elevator speech will be given in casual conversation, so while it is important to draft an elevator speech in case you find yourself in a situation where you will need to use one, you should not be able to quote it like you can quote your favorite movie. Including “ums” and pauses, and stumbling is just fine (and encouraged!)
Overall, the exercise of constructing and delivering an elevator speech was a very helpful exercise. It made me think about the specifics of the language that I use. Additionally, it made me think about what reasons I should give to non-scientists about why my work matters; how could I make it personal and resonate with them? I think that it’s a worthwhile exercise for all graduate students to think about their elevator speech and examine their use of jargon when communicating with non-scientists. And with the holiday season upon us, I am sure that many graduate students will be bombarded at some seasonal, family event with “So dear, what are you doing with your life?”