Stop waffling! Five steps to a successful research ‘Elevator Pitch’

This post is by Associate Professor Evonne Miller, Interim Director of QUT Design Lab, Queensland University of Technology.

I can’t be the only thesis supervisor who, listening to their (or others) student present at a seminar, conference or just sharing their research in conversation with others, has mentally (and maybe also physically) sighed in disbelief and disappointment. The thought: are you kidding me, stop waffling and please, for the love of everything, just stop talking’ races through your head. Such wonderful, ground breaking research methodology, novel findings and amazing impact .. and your student has lost their audience, as they describe the most irrelevant, boring aspects of their research. As best-selling novelist CJ Lyons notes, who would want to know more or read something when the person who “ate / slept / breathed it for a year or more can’t explain” it in a clear and compelling manner.

And, if I am honest, I am guilty of this too.
At times, especially when I have not done the hard yards in terms of preparation, my own verbal communication can be less than succinct. If I do not prepare, or at least think about the key points I want to make and the core take home message, I can do a poor job of selling the value and impact of my research (and of selling myself – a critical concern for our thesis students who are looking for employment post their PhD).

So, how can we improve?
How can we – and our students – better communicate our research?

Developing a polished ‘EP’  – ELEVATOR PITCH – can help us build connections and our reputation, so it is worth putting some time and thought into how you communicate your research IN A SHORT TIME FRAME. Below, I outline my ‘5-S’ approach to EP for researchers… maybe set your PhD student the task of crafting and presenting an EP at your next meeting (or do it yourself! In many ways, this is an informal version of the annual ‘3 minute thesis competition’, so look at those for guidance).

The 5’S approach to a research ‘Elevator Pitch’ 

1. ‘So-What’?
2. Skip the Jargon
3. Spiel – Short & Sweet
4. Smile
5. Shut Up!

1. The ‘So-What’ Factor
At the outset, it is critically important to know what makes you – and your research – unique. That is your ‘so-what’ factor, and it is central to the EP. Spend some time reflecting on why your research is important, and what aspects/key messages might resonate best with different audiences (eg industry, fellow academics, communities). Over time, you will develop different spiels for different audiences, differently emphasising your unique recruitment, techniques, analysis or approach to engagement and dissemination. The best, most engaging and memorable ‘elevator pitches’ are those that convey the excitement, energy and interest the researcher has for their research – so be authentic and share your passion

2. Skip the jargon!
Jargon is everywhere, and while helpful at times in terms of facilitating quick, shorthand communication, it does NOT belong in your EP. No acronyms. Simple language.

3. Spiel – short and sweet
Your spiel has to roll smoothly of your tongue; don’t think that because you are loving and breathing your research you can explain it concisely and clearly in a few minutes. Trust me: crafting a short, clear and compelling narrative requires preparation and a degree of memorisation – start by developing and learning a few key phrases.

Get comfortable with your spiel: practice it – in the car, in the shower, when out walking / running (yes, people will look at your weirdly when you are talking to yourself – but what’s new?). Asking a friend or family member to give feedback is great; also, use technology – a great way to get a sense of how fluent you are (and where you stumble or ramble) is to record yourself on your iPad/phone. Develop and  memorise a few key phrases that describe what makes you and your research unique – but remember to remain natural and try to not sound robotic!


4. Smile
You want to come across as likeable, warm and approachable – even if that is not your personality, no one will know – if you smile. Simply smiling is a great way to engage people; try it!

5. Shut up
Academics can waffle. As I write this, I am sitting in all-faculty meeting – there are a few presenters who could have done with this advice. Keep it short, shut up and leave the audience wanting more.

I hope the ‘5 S’s’ approach might help you and your students craft better ‘EP’. I also highly recommend attending and watching (there are many online) the annual ‘3 minute thesis competition’, which is an extended version of an EP in a research context.

A reminder: The 5’S approach to a research ‘Elevator Pitch’

1. ‘So-What’?
2. Skip the Jargon
3. Spiel – Short & Sweet
4. Smile
5. Shut Up!

The image is from Evonne – an all women (10 women) panel on stage at a recent day-long research workshop on ageing (the gender balance was an accident, but happened to coincide with 2017 International Women’s Day). 


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