Are you Ready for your 15 Seconds of Fame?


Sometimes, it is the simplest questions that stump us. Perhaps you just aren’t expecting it. Perhaps you have been so focused on what is complicated you haven’t invested any time getting back to basics. How you got there doesn’t matter. But there you are – at a cocktail party or a conference, making small talk with an acquaintance or sitting in the back of a cab, and you’ve been asked the age-old question…

“So... what do you do?”

This is when you need to launch into your elevator pitch – the picture you paint of your work when you have only as much time as you would spend on the average elevator ride.

You want to get this right. This small window of time determines whether that person continues to ask more questions, or whether they politely excuse themselves and walk on. What do you say?

You might think this sounds easy.  You are, after all, an expert at what you do! Many of us, however, find ourselves strangely tongue-tied when this question is raised. The difficulty here is picking through the endless amounts of information you could share about your work, and correctly identifying the things that are appropriate for that moment. How can you accurately and effectively give someone an idea of what you do in such a short time?  

There are a few common pitfalls:

  1. Getting too in the weeds. Using a lot of technical jargon creates distance between you and the other person, and is a quick way to lose their interest or even intimidate them. Keep your descriptions higher-level to start so that others can follow your train of thought.

  2. Having too short a memory. You have something you are focusing on right now, that thing keeping you up at night, but is that the best representation of what you do in a more general sense? This pitfall is similar to the one above - you need to orient people to your work at the 30,000-foot-level before you dive into the particulars. While your current project might most fascinate you, older ones that have followed a more complete arc will ground others better in your work.

  3. Not knowing where to start. You do so many different things, and you don’t want to reduce yourself. But if you don’t anchor your response in something simple and succinct you run the risk of rambling.

The best way to avoid any of these issues is to prepare your elevator pitch beforehand, and to PRACTICE. Knowing your 30 second answer to this question and being able to spout it off confidently is the first step toward being able to share your work with the people who count. The basic structure is simple:

Define yourself. “I am a _____. " (Scientist? Inventor? Entrepreneur?)

Identify your field/area of interest. “I work on ­­­________ ." (What problem are you trying to solve?)”

Describe why you are unique. “I use _____ ." (What is your approach/technique/medium for doing this work?)

Provide evidence. “Doing it this way ­­_____ ." (Why is your work better than an alternative approach? What are you providing that is new?)

While the pressure is off, sit down and come up with answers to those questions. Write it out, sit in front of a mirror, and repeat it until you have it down pat. Want an easy partner to practice on? Just call an Uber.