Your Career in a Sentence – How to Craft an Elevator Pitch

How to craft an elevator pitchAn “Elevator Pitch” – the idea that you should be able to explain your idea, project or lab within a 20-30 second elevator ride – is like explaining your project in a Tweet.  You’ve got to trim the fat and get to the point, or else you just get cut off.  Never has the art of brevity been more important than in today’s society, where people face constant information and sensory overload.  In every interaction, people are constantly forced to make a quick judgment call on whether what they’re hearing is worth their time.

Despite understanding the concept of the elevator pitch, it can often be very difficult to craft, especially when you’re working on a very specific problem that needs a few minutes of background to be put in context.

Or so you think….

One of the arts of a great scientist is to distill their work into a single sentence that anyone can understand- scientist or not.  After all, you do not know if the person in the elevator is a scientist…or whether they understand your field.

So we’ve asked Charles Craik, Ph.D., one of my former graduate advisors and master of the pitch, to help us learn the art.  Charles is a Professor of Biochemistry, Pharmaceutical Chemistry and Cellular & Molecular Pharmacology and the Director of the Chemistry and Chemical Biology Graduate Program at the Univeristy of California, San Francisco.  If he can condense over twenty years of research into 1 sentence, we should be able to handle our project…

How many people are currently in your lab?

About 17 with the summer interns but usually about 14. Check out the website.

How many distinct projects are there in the lab?

About seven.

I’d guess there are at least 10 background papers and 5 years of work that have gone into formulating the hypothesis upon which each of those projects is based.  In other words, tons of information… So we challenge you to write an elevator pitch for your lab – the whole thing – in one sentence.


Walk us through how you would get there:

Step 1.

Imagine a funnel that is very wide at the top and narrow at the bottom. The top of the funnel is at the 30,000-foot view of the project and involves its significance in the broadest possible terms. The bottom of the funnel is at ground level and involves the day-to-day goings-on in the lab. So, look for the big picture elements and unifying themes to begin.

Status of Pitch at this point:

Using our knowledge of protein structure and function to obtain an atomic level understanding of master regulatory proteins associated with disease states including cancer, parasitic and viral infections.

Working at the interface of chemistry and biology in a health science setting to develop modes of intervention for cancer and infectious disease.

Understanding the role of proteolytic enzymes in infectious disease and cancer.

Step 2.

Think about how what is going on in the lab ties into the bigger picture but do not oversell the project. There is a difference between clearly explaining the value of your research in such a way to make it interesting to a broad audience and becoming a used car salesman. Analogies and metaphors can be useful as long as they do not distort the facts. Remember, you are a scientist first and foremost. You have to maintain your credibility.

Status of Pitch at this point:

Structure based drug design and chemical biology methods for inhibitor design as well as diagnostics and prognostics. Targeting enzymes that are key regulators of disease. Focusing on proteases because of their omnipresence and the wealth of information available.

Step 3.

Only give them enough information to make them want to hear more. Keep in mind that it is their tax dollars that are helping support the research and they have a right to know what you are doing with it. Start the sentence with the most important point first. Leave the technology and how you are going to do it to the end. What you do matters here, not necessarily how you do it, and avoids being marginalized by category (eg, He or she is just a chemist, physicist, biologist, physician, etc). If the person you are speaking with shows sincere interest and asks a question, be prepared to work your way down the funnel with increasing resolution to describe what you do in greater detail, tailoring your description to your audience.

Status of Pitch at this point:

Understanding medically relevant biological processes for purposes of intervention using chemical approaches.

Understanding medically relevant biological processes using chemical approaches to eventually develop new therapeutics and diagnostics.

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Hot air in an elevator is never appreciated, so be sure it’s not coming from you.

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Any additional suggestions on how to create an elevator pitch for your research?

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Once you’ve got the pitch down, these articles may help:

Having a Business Card Doesn’t Make You a Douchebag

Academic Scientists: Please Remember to Translate

Don’t Be Such a Scientist! An Interview with Randy Olson



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5 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. Tony Scov ille

    wrote on August 7, 2009 at 11:39 pm

    You must have learned this from your dad. He's the master!

  2. alan@benchfly

    wrote on August 10, 2009 at 1:52 pm

    I've definitely learned this is an art- and a very important one at that!

  3. leslie

    wrote on August 11, 2009 at 3:02 am

    There's an art to crafting a message that suits another person's interests and your needs. Love this post, despite needing a scientific dictionary for some of the words!

  4. chemist99

    wrote on August 16, 2009 at 7:14 pm

    The elevator pitch is a really important skill that comes into play in talking to your parents, talking to taxpayers, teaching, or writing grant applications. Get to the point in plain language. In short or long presentations, avoiding jargon is really critical because once you throw out a term that no one understands they will get lost and miss the next few sentences. This is usually enough for them to lose track of what you're trying to say and just tune out. There's no getting them back. Look at the audience's (or person's) eyes and body language for feedback. If you see you've lost them, stop and backtrack to reengage.

  5. Having a Business Card Doesn’t Make You a Douchebag | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on August 4, 2010 at 9:27 am

    […] to work on the part before handing someone a card?  Check out How to Craft an Elevator Pitch to master the art of selling your […]

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