Stop Pitching in the Elevator and Start Stalking in the Wild – “Elevator” Pitches for Biologists

March 30, 2017

 

One of the loftiest goals of any biologist should be the ability to assimilate information, and use that information for new and creative purposes. For example, if it wasn’t for an understanding of physical interaction between x-rays and crystals, we wouldn’t know what the structure of DNA looks like (Mind = Blown). Much like this, I have spent much of my time and working experience using my knowledge in creative ways to come up with solutions to my common problems. This is especially prevalent in my business life, because all my education in business has been self-taught, or derived directly from experience – you know, the nice way of saying I’ve learned from a massive number of mistakes.
I recently encountered a group of senior year biology students who had been given an assignment to come up with an “elevator” pitch for finding a job, and they were less than thrilled about it. They didn’t see the purpose of the assignment, and the general attitude was that of frustration and futility. After being told the requirements of this pitch, I could empathize with the students. They had a lot of information that they needed to pack into their “elevator” pitch, and were told that it should take no longer than a minute to say aloud, without rushing. 

Many students and biologists I have worked with think such things are of no use to them. Here’s the problem with that: of all the skills I have developed and all the knowledge I have accumulated, being able to quickly say who you are and why you are important is in the top 5 skills I use.

Every. Single. Day.

Convincing others of your greatness and why you are worth something to them is the basis behind getting an interview, a job, a contract, that fat research grant, or a paying customer. Though we as biologists like to think we don’t need to fit into this business norm, and that our work should speak for itself through our journal articles and reports, it doesn’t. We need to be able to communicate, confidently, clearly, and concisely why we are important and valuable. And we need to do so in-person.

We may not be perfect business people, but we are biologists! Being a biologist is a fine starting point as we possess a body of knowledge we can draw upon to creatively assess and act upon this problem. I’m going to start this guide with a brief breakdown of the “elevator” pitch, then I’ll get into some of my personal experience, and hopefully I can tie it all together into a neat little step-by-step guide that you can use to make a solid “elevator” pitch using this article and your scientific background!

First and foremost, what is it an “elevator” pitch? For those of you that don’t know, it is a sales pitch for a product or service that can be said quickly and concisely, like during an elevator ride. The story of this is imagined as a motivated person with an idea, accidentally stepping into an elevator with the CEO of a company, the person knows this is a golden opportunity to get some exposure for themselves and their ideas, but they only have that elevator ride to impress.

I am sure you noticed by now I have been putting the word “elevator” in quotations, it’s because as a Marine Biologist, I find the elevator metaphor tedious, I don’t spend much time in elevators, so I usually refer to it as a sales pitch. What we are trying to do is sell someone on us, our research, our business, ourselves, etc. in a very short time-frame. It doesn’t matter exactly what we are selling, the trend here is that we are giving someone a quick glimpse into what we have, and how it is valuable. 

As for the pitch itself, there are many ways to formulate such a pitch, and there is a huge amount of information on the internet about sales pitches and how to use them. My recommendation is to look at websites like entrepreneur.com, The Mars Entreprenuer’s Toolkit and mindtools.com, which are excellent business and marketing resources. Now I am going to wax rhapsodical for a moment, and hopefully my experiences give you an insight into navigating this whole process with more ease and success.

When I was young, living in the forests of Northern British Columbia, I spent a lot of my time hunting and fishing with my family. I remember spending weekends at a lake casting a line onto the water, or hiking for miles along game trails in search of the animals that my family survived off. As a child I just followed the lead of my parents or grandparents, watched them and followed their directions, but looking back on it I was learning a very useful skill – stalking a target. The main takeaway that I kept hearing was – we are in the animals’ house, and they are keener, smarter, and quicker than us. If we want to eat, we need to understand our target, be where they are, wait for the right opportunity, and in an instant, strike.

There were many failures, but there were also some successes, and those successes were the reason we had enough food to keep going. I haven’t had the need to hunt since leaving home and getting an education, but the lessons learned in stalking a target have carried forward throughout my life. Any researcher knows, that getting the right data comes from those same lessons – preparation, patience, and opportunity. The same thing, applies to the sales pitch, so at this point we are going to get out of the elevator, and go on the hunt.

Step 1 – Know your target…
The first thing, more than anything else, is to know as much about the target in question as possible. Even if all you manage to get out of your pitch is a handshake and a hello, at least you will be able to carry a conversation about their interests, making you look good. In our day and age of social media and the internet, it is easier than ever to learn about a specific person or institute. Find professional information, specific interests, and anything else that seems interesting, you never know what might become relevant.

You want to understand your target, whether it’s a professor that you want to get a recommendation letter from, or the hiring manager at a consulting company. Know everything you can. Once you know exactly who it is you are targeting, know what it is they are trying to accomplish. Are they looking for a person to manage a research project? Are they a funding agency? Do they have an amazing internship opportunity? This is important, as it will be the foundation on which the pitch is created.

Step 2 – Craft a Pitch…
Like I said previously, there are a huge number of ways to create a pitch, which one you use is up to you, your comfort, and what you think the target will respond best to. I personally am a fan of the Value Proposition Statement – this is a type of sales pitch that is popular in lean startup companies to show potential customers why they should buy their product or service. The Value Proposition Statement follows a very simple formula – state the target’s problem, show them the solution, and in 3 points or less, tell them the benefits. In our case, we are trying to sell ourselves, so we are showing the target that we are the solution. At this point, with the preparation we did in step one, we know who our target is and what they are trying to accomplish. Now we need choose how we are going to sell them on us.

For example – if I am going into a meeting where I know that there is a group of professors looking for a research manager, I would go into detailed preparation and figure out who is going to be at the meeting. I would then determine who is in charge of hiring, and if any senior level executives are going to be there. Once I have determined all this, I would figure out everything I could about them professionally and personally. Their professional histories, education, what they liked and disliked, what they were looking for in a research manager, and as much about their personalities as possible.

From the research, say I determine that they are all your average working professionals at a university, I have worked with their colleagues in a different university, that they are worried about a large project and need someone that is good at handling finances because they had to fire a bookkeeper. Now I have something to craft my value proposition statement.

With this information, here is my statement–

“I understand that you are looking for a research manager. I am a project management professional with 10 years of experience in academic projects. I would be excited to work with you at XYZ university because my previous associates at ABC university informed me about your upcoming “XYZ” project. I know that my skills in financial management and scheduling would be a real asset to your project team.”

In the first sentence, I have already told them I know what they are trying to accomplish, and in the second sentence I am already selling them the solution – me! Notice how I use my network of previous associates to back up my previous experience (this example assumes I am unemployed, but it could easily be adapted if I had a job, or to sell the my company’s services). Because I specified about their “XYZ” project and they know what that project is about, I don't have to tell them the details, I only have to keep working on the solution. Finally, in the last sentence, I give them 2 key skills I know they are looking for based on my prep work, specifically, I focused on financials and scheduling because I know they worried about finance.

When I say the whole statement aloud at a moderate pace, it takes ~25 seconds to say. To summarize: I could introduce myself and give the target a customized, verifiable sales pitch. All in approximately one minute. Please remember this example is merely one of many, but hopefully it helps you have some idea of what I mean about a pitch.

Step 3 – Go on the hunt…
Once you have your target and have created your pitch, you must figure out how you are going track them down. To come back to my example in step 3 – how did I get into that meeting in the first place? In the elevator example, where you accidentally end up in there with the CEO of the company, takes a lot of luck. Luck is good, but what’s better is planning.

Again, there are many ways of tracking someone down, you could do it through email, or on the phone, but these methods are impersonal and are less desirable than an in-person meeting. It is best to use emails and phone calls to get an in-person meeting. There are many way to do what is known as a “cold call”, but easiest tactic I have discovered for this is to use a bit of polite stupidity and genuine interest. For example, call up the office of the target, say you are doing a school project on some topic related to what you are trying to pitch and ask if you might be able to get an informational interview with a representative to help with your research. If you are polite and willing to be patient, many people are more flattered than annoyed with such requests, and though it doesn’t always work, it certainly does help. Use this information session to do more planning and collect more information for step 1, but if you end up in the right place, with the right person, then take the opportunity to pitch. 

Step 4 – Pitch!
If the time is right and your target is there, and more importantly interested in talking, then it’s time to strike! Or, more accurately, give them your pitch. A couple of pointers here to help make this a good pitch. First, never make the pitch the first thing you talk about if you have the time to talk. Get to know the person a little first and find a common interest to build rapport. Second, practice your pitch before you use it, it will not just come out fluidly, say it to yourself at home several times, until you are happy with it, and then, try out the pitch on friends and family first, don’t be upset if your friends and family misinterpret the pitch, remember, how they hear it is just as important as how you say it. If it comes off bad to them, fix it. Finally, in the words of the great Douglas Adams – Don’t Panic! When you are out there doing these pitches to accomplish your goals, it will feel a little bit like you are at the mercy of the wilds. If you get to this point you may be heaps of nervous, and feel out of place. Just remember – Even though you are out in the wild, and your target may be keener, smarter, and quicker than you. You were patient, you prepared, and you are hunting them, not the other way around.

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