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Responsibilities May Include

Turn your elevator pitch into an escalator pitch

A moment may be all the time to seize that important opportunity.


In teaching professional development, I often ask students to prepare an elevator pitch to describe what they do and where they are going. Imagine yourself in an elevator with Elon Musk (CEO of Tesla Motors) and he asks you what you do. How would you answer? The idea is to pitch what you do in plain language. For academics, this is a difficult task because we tend to use a lot of jargon, even when we speak to lay people. Because of nervousness, it’s a good idea to have an elevator pitch prepared in advance. It’s also why competitions like Three Minute Thesis are such a good experience. You should be able to draw people like Mr. Musk into a conversation. It starts with a high level (i.e. 30,000 foot) statement like mine: “I’m helping to cure degenerative diseases using stem cells.” If it’s an interesting statement, you will draw Mr. Musk in and he will ask for more, as you take him step-by-step down to your level. If you bore him with details and jargon, his eyes will likely glaze over.

In his new book, This I Know, Terry O’Reilly, marketing guru and host of the popular CBC podcast Under the Influence, invites us to consider turning our elevator pitch into an escalator pitch. On an elevator we might have 30 seconds to make our pitch, whereas on an escalator we only have one sentence. This means that we must identify our essence, which is not as simple as we think. The idea is to really capture someone’s imagination, much like what producers do to pitch movies. A rapid-fire pitch may be all the time we have to cinch a position or establish a collaboration. In the academic context, your escalator pitch might be what secures your next co-authorship opportunity, funding source, or valuable connection on LinkedIn.

A prescient example Terry O’Reilly gives is when Steve Jobs tried to get Pepsi CEO John Scully to join Apple. Despite the offer of millions of dollars, what convinced Scully was Jobs saying: “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?” For Steve Jobs, the essence of Apple was making the world a better place, and that idea was at the core of his escalator pitch to Scully. This statement gnawed at Scully’s gut and was ultimately the reason he joined Apple. Mr. O’Reilly says that your escalator pitch needs to have profound meaning. Another good example is when legendary basketball coach Pat Riley told first-time NBA finalists Miami Heat just to “pack for one night” on the eve of Game 6, even though they had two chances to cinch the championship against the LA Lakers. For Pat Riley, the essence of his team was that they were winners—on the first try. Did the Heat have to play Game 7? Nope.

Finding your essence is not easy because our lives are very complicated. Mr. O’Reilly likens it to a dot on a page that is surrounded by a variety of concentric circles. Those circles can be time, growth, success, failures, market conditions, staff turnover, management changes, competitive changes and business cycles. In the academic context, those circles can also include things like external funding, supervisory relationships, publications, and the like. With each circle, we move further way from our essence or, as he calls it, our flashpoint.

This concept resonates with me. The other day I stumbled upon a strategic planning presentation that I prepared 15 years ago when my lab and my life were less complicated. Back then I was building my research program. I was well-funded and had a high-functioning team. I had successfully developed the university’s Targeted Mutagenesis Facility and was commissioned by the Canadian Stem Cell Network to develop Canada’s first embryonic stem cells. Back then my lab had an essence, but since then I have passed through a gauntlet of having little funding and making sacrifices on focus, personnel, and quality to stretch my funding. Now that I have arrived on the other side, I know that I need to find my lab’s essence again. I don’t have the answer today, but I am thinking about undertaking another visioning and strategic planning exercise with my new lab members. As Pat Riley’s example shows, understanding and communicating your team’s essence — your escalator pitch — can have a powerful effect on how you perform as a team, and as individuals.

In the meantime, I challenge everyone to prepare an escalator pitch and, better yet, to find your essence. Students competing in the Three Minute Thesis competition should consider opening with their escalator pitch. This will set the stage for an excellent presentation — and who knows? It might propel you, your research, and your career to new heights.

Derrick Rancourt is a stem cell biologist and professor in the Cumming School of Medicine, University of Calgary. He is an entrepreneurial scientist and director of Alberta’s Genome Engineering Centre. He teaches biotechnology business and professional development and serves on the Alberta Council of Technologies.
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  1. Reuben Kaufman / January 17, 2018 at 18:47

    With respect, I really don’t understand the value of a 30-second elevator pitch …. Yes indeed, one uses plain language. And naturally, “I’m helping to cure degenerative diseases using stem cells.” is an appropriate opener, which invites the listener to ask more….. But the 30-second elevator pitch is apparently even too long for an escalator. So you say “In the academic context, your escalator pitch might be what secures your next co-authorship opportunity, funding source, or valuable connection on LinkedIn.” Really? Tell me please, what was so brilliant about Steve Job’s “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?” If hearing that statement was “ultimately the reason [Scully] joined Apple”, what does that say about both the pitcher and the pitchee?

    OK, so if someone asks me to tell them what my research area is, my initial response might be something like, “The physiology of ticks. My current focus is to study the mechanical properties of the outer skin, or cuticle.” If that answer results in a yawn, fine …. We each go on our merry way. If that answer invites the response, “Really? I’d like to learn more.” I can then elaborate to whatever level the listener wishes. To imagine that I could have phrased my escalator sentence in such a way as to attract more attention implies something really trivial about the world we live in.

    So the escalator speech is only an opener which “…. might propel you, your research, and your career to new heights.” Sorry, but with respect: that’s preposterous.

  2. Reinhart Reithmeier / February 25, 2018 at 19:07

    I highly recommend an easy-to-read book by Judith Humphrey “Speaking as a Leader”, which outlines a simple 4-step speaking model where one opens every conversation with a “grabber” statement that should elicit the response “That’s interesting, tell me more!”