The Elevator Pitch

By Margaret Greaves, Skidmore College

The phrase “elevator pitch” is intimidating. A year out from MLA in Vancouver, writing this piece from my new office at a college I love, I’m still so afraid of the phrase that I found it challenging to start typing. (I even Googled “elevator pitch” to make sure I haven’t fundamentally misunderstood the term all along.)

Because the elevator pitch intimidates most job candidates, there’s a built-in tendency to sound intimidating when we give it. This is a mistake. As we’re always telling our students, write and speak for your audience. You can’t predict how tired, excited, bored, or hungry the members of your search committee will be when you walk into the hotel room, but you can count on two things: most people like to be entertained, and most people don’t like to feel stupid. Above all, your elevator pitch should be clear. It might even tell a story. And it should never be so inflated, esoteric, or lengthy that your interviewers can’t follow you.

Each audience is unique, so if you have multiple interviews you’ll have to put in the work. I interviewed for eleven jobs in three fields, which meant I wrote three distinct elevator pitches. (To prevent confusion, I kept a folder for each job: it included the job description and all of the materials I’d submitted to that particular place. Reviewing the folders was a more soothing hotel lobby activity than playing word games on my iPhone, which suddenly took on loaded significance.) I say “wrote” because it’s a good idea to memorize the organizational scaffolding of your pitch, if not the words themselves. But after I wrote the pitches, I reworked them until they were conversational. Many candidates, I’m sure, don’t write them down at all and probably shouldn’t. It’s a matter of personal style; writing them down helped me to learn them, but I also had to work not to sound rehearsed, or, worse, bored by myself.

For me, these were the three most important prongs of the elevator pitch: short, organized, and down-to-earth.

First, on length. The committee is interviewing you as a colleague. No one wants a colleague who monologues at meetings and makes everyone stay late on a Friday afternoon. Prove that you won’t be this colleague by keeping yours under 60 seconds. Mine were 40-45 seconds, but I could do them in 30 seconds if I saw anyone getting glassy-eyed. The interviewers can (and will) ask you a follow-up question if they want to hear more. Be enticing; it’s better to play a little hard-to-get with your research than to bombard them.

Second, on organization. Here’s the structure I used in all three versions: an attention grabber that introduces the topic in the broadest way possible (the best I’ve ever heard was from a friend who opened with, “My project began with the word ‘failure’”); a statement on periodization and region; a one-sentence version of the argument; one specific, concrete example that also demonstrates the project’s methodology; and a closing statement on the significance of the research. You can accomplish all of this in 45 seconds; you can even do it in 30 if you write an airtight version.

Third, don’t make anyone feel dumb. Make sure to explain each turn in your complex ideas, and each potentially obscure term, without highlighting the fact that you’re explaining concepts. This might sound like occult advice, but we do this constantly when teaching. In fact, it helped me to think about my elevator pitch as though I were explaining my research to my students. How can I interest them without alienating them? How can I seem both intellectually intense and approachable? And above all, how can I activate their passion for my narrow subject? This last part was the most important for me. After all, why else do all of this?