How to talk about your research at parties
By Saffron Bryant
Do you ever talk about your research, full of excitement, only to see the eyes of the people around you glazing over? Then you probably need to work on your elevator pitch. Once you’ve perfected that, you can ride the elevator to the bottom floor of the ivory tower and stride out onto the street. What the laboured metaphor is getting at is that your research needs to be accessible to everyone, not just academics, and certainly not just academics in your field.
People will only be interested in your research if they can understand it, and if they can see how it affects them. Therefore, you need to make sure you use language that isn’t specific to your field and that you can apply your research to the here and now.
Let’s break it down into five easy steps:
Step 1. What is your main research question/focus?
Write this down in a few sentences, using whatever language comes naturally to you. This will probably involve specialist words, but don’t worry about that now, just try to get the ideas down.
Example: I look at the self-assembly of phospholipids in ionic liquids and deep eutectic solvents.
Step 2. Why should people care?
Write down how your research can help/impact people today. Why should the average person care about your research? What benefits or insights does it bring?
Example: Self-assembled structures can be used in drug delivery. Self-assembly in non-aqueous solvents gives clues to the underlying forces involved in spontaneous structures. Vesicle self-assembly in non-aqueous liquids simulates proto-life structures.
Step 3. Make it accessible
Look at what you wrote down for Step 1. Highlight words that are specific to your field, or words that would score more than fifteen points in scrabble, and try to think of a different way of saying the same thing that is more accessible to the average person. Can you simplify what you’ve written? Or broaden the interest?
Example: I look at the self-assembly (specialist term, it can be replaced with something more accessible e.g. types of shapes formed by) of phospholipids in ionic liquids and deep eutectic solvents (these are all specialist terms which the general public wouldn’t care about. They make no difference to how the research is interpreted by non-specialists. Therefore, they could be replaced with: chemicals in liquids other than water.)
Do the same with what you wrote for Step 2. Also try to condense it down to one or two snappy sentences that really capture what your research can bring to the table, that is, the highlight that people will find most interesting.
Example: Vesicles are like basic cells and so if they can form even when there’s no water, It’s possible that more complicated structures, and therefore life, could evolve without water e.g. on alien planets.
Thus, the improved elevator pitch becomes:
“I look at the types of shapes formed by chemicals in liquids other than water. Some of these shapes are similar to basic cells, therefore if they can form without water then it’s possible that more complicated structures, and therefore life, could evolve without water, e.g. on alien planets.”
Step 4. Refine
Your elevator pitch probably still sounds like a mini-lecture even if people can understand what you’re talking about. Now, you need to go over what you’ve written and find ways to cut it down, make it interesting, make it special and memorable. Remember, you’re not trying to submit this to a journal, you’re trying to bring the average person into your research and share your excitement. You also don’t need to jam all of your research into one sentence, you just want to share enough that people get interested, and then they’ll ask you questions on their own because they WANT to know more.
“I look at whether life can evolve without water, like on alien planets.”
Other person: “Oh wow, how do you do that?”
“Well, I put chemicals into liquids that aren’t water and look to see what kind of shapes they make. Some of them make shapes similar to simple cells, like we evolved from.”
Other person: “Liquids other than water, what do you mean by that?”
This conversation may be a bit contrived, but you get the idea. You need an interesting hook that is simple and easy to understand, that will draw people into your research. Once you’ve done that, you need to be able to expand on your research without slipping into language that the average person doesn’t understand.
Step 5. Connect
Share your contact and social media details – you never know where that social connection may lead…
Also remember, you can have different elevator pitches for different audiences. For example, if you’re talking to other people who are specialists in the same field as you then you probably don’t have to go further than step 1. They’ll understand the specialist terms and they’ll probably be able to work out the benefits for themselves. Similarly, if you’re talking to people who specialise in a related field, then perhaps you don’t need to get rid of the specialist terms, but you will need to expand on the benefits. Knowing which pitch to use to which audience can take practice, but it’s always a good idea to have a ground-level pitch ready so that the next time you’re at a party and someone asks “So what do you do?”, you can answer without making everyone run for the door.
About Dr Saffron Bryant
Saffron studied an undergraduate and honours degree in Biomedical Science and recently finished a PhD in chemistry (where she really did look at the possibility of life without water). She writes science fiction and fantasy novels in her spare time and is currently searching for post-doc opportunities (wink-wink, nudge-nudge). She loves talking science, and science fiction, at www.saffronbryant.com