Going Up: The Elevator Speech

Adam Blood portrait

As a graduate student, talking about your research to a non-specialist can be tricky. Even more of a challenge is translating what you’ve done in graduate school to how it makes you a great fit for your next career. While you may have a general idea of what you’d talk about for two or three minutes, presenting that information well can be daunting.

As a public speaking instructor and debate coach, what stands out to me about these short speaking situations is their ability to wreak havoc on the nerves of those who are either nervous about speaking to strangers, or those who are naturally quiet and would prefer to avoid being put on the spot. The key here is that speaking well in these situations is something that can often take a lot of practice, even for those who naturally have the gift of gab. These tips will show you how to practice these kinds of speeches so that you can be ready when the situation arises.

What is the Elevator Speech?

Develop a Crucial Transferable Skill

"Aside from fielding questions about their jobs at cocktail parties, researchers may need to summarize their work briefly while interviewing for a position, asking for money, taking a visiting politician on a lab tour or wooing a potential collaborator at a conference."

-Roberta Kwok, Two minutes to impress

The Elevator Speech is a short speech between 20-30 seconds and two minutes. It got the name “elevator speech” or “elevator pitch” because it’s the length of an elevator ride. In this short time period, the speaker is expected to quickly and effectively relay information about an organization, a product, a process, or even their own credentials as a potential employee or contact. The scenario is usually something like this: you get onto an elevator with a person who could help you or your organization. Until those elevator doors open, you have a captive audience. The trick is making every second count and effectively conveying your message.

There are a few challenges connected to this kind of speech. First, it is almost entirely an impromptu speech, meaning it’s highly unlikely that you’re going to have the advantage of preparation, notes or reference material, or visual aids. It also means you don’t know who your audience is—you may be speaking with an expert from your field or an employer who has a vague idea about your research. What complicates the impromptu nature of these speeches is that until they happen, they’re referred to completely in the hypothetical. You may not know who the audience is, what exactly the message needs to be, or what other factors are going to come into play, until the moment arises. After all, when you ride the elevator, you speak with both people you know well and relative strangers.

That said, the real challenge is how to say everything you need to say in such a short time.

Tip 1: Keep the situation in mind

As odd it may seem, it helps to practice for impromptu speaking situations. Imagine a scenario where you run into a promising contact in an elevator. This could be a potential employer or a potential client. Since it’s basically an imaginary scenario, feel free to have some fun with it. You could practice how you’d introduce yourself if your childhood hero happened to get into an elevator. What matters most is that you practice speaking confidently and energetically as you communicate your message.

Tailor the Speech

"Engineers are curious about how the technology works, but executives are seeking high-level conceptual picture that tells them how they will save money or get an edge on the competition."

-- Roberta Kwok

Depending upon your audience and the situation, you can then give these practice speeches in more context. If you’re talking about your research, you can practice a 20-30 second explanation of your research and its greater implications. If you’re out on the job market (or will be soon), you can practice telling about you, your credentials and why you’re right for the job. The best thing about these practices is that they don’t take much time, so you can practice them whenever you feel like it.

Tip 2: Economize words

Pick your words with care

"Some words or phrases that may not seem too technical, such as 'synthesis' or 'mechanism of the reaction,' should be avoided because they sound too vague, says Blount. A better phrase would be something like, 'I'm looking for a greener way to make this chemical.'

"Analogies can be helpful in explaining phenomena such as the hard-to-conceptualize invisible subatomic world."

-- Roberta Kwok

Word economy is the ability to communicate as much as you can with the fewest words possible. There are a couple of ways to practice this. First, consider the most common elevator speech situation, wherein you’re meeting a potential contact, and you’re pitching is yourself. For many people, it takes more than just a few words to describe what they do and it’s easy to get lost in the small details. Prioritize what you talk about and how much you say—you may not say much about your daily tasks when you explain your skills or why your research is important. Realize that the big picture is central to these short speeches. You may not be able to describe in precise detail every element of your job or your skills, but you can come up with a phrase or sentence that captures the big picture of who you are and what you do.

Another drill you can run to practice word economy is the “shrinking” speech. In this drill, you practice giving a slightly longer speech (about three minutes) on a fun topic you’re familiar and comfortable with, like your favorite lesson from a class or even the plot of your favorite movie. Once you’ve practiced giving a three minute speech on this topic, cut the time down to two minutes, then one minute, and then finally, thirty seconds. This exercise forces you to focus on the most important details of the topic so you learn to say more using fewer words.

Once you’ve practiced this a few times with a fun topic, apply it to your elevator speech. Practice talking about your credentials and experience, and each time, work on finding the most effective and efficient ways to get the message across.

Tip 3: Tackle your weaknesses

Practice having presence

"'Energy and body language are important: make eye contact and use natural gestures to convey enthusiasm and draw the listener in [...].' Watch for cues, too; if the listener is glazing over, stop and let them ask a question, or bring in details that might pique their interest."

-- Roberta Kwok

When it comes to speaking, we all have weaknesses. Some people battle with nervous energy, which makes them fidget or gesture too much. Others speakers have a monotonous tone, making it hard to really show energy or engage the listener. When you practice these short speeches, treat this as an opportunity to evaluate your strengths and weaknesses, and once you’ve found an area that can use improvement, let that be one of the key focus areas for your practice.

To correct a weakness, it can help to overdo it in the other direction. For instance, if you struggle with sounding monotone when you speak, practice with over-the-top tone of voice and overly animated facial expressions. If you speak too fast, make your speech uncomfortably slow. Doing this in practice will stretch your speech pattern. When you’re actually expected to speak, you will naturally come down to “new normal” in the way you speak.

Tip 4: Get feedback

Sometimes the biggest challenge of practicing public speaking is that practice happens in private. So, if you really want to come up with an outstanding elevator speech, a friend or mentor willing to listen may be just the ticket to figuring out what to work on. These listeners can provide encouragement, help you find areas that need improvement, and—if they know you well enough—they can help you highlight and play to your strengths.

If you’re on the job market, it may help to find a mentor: someone who has been in your situation and has reached the place you're hoping to go. Ask for feedback on your speech, paying special attention to what your listener (in this case, potential employer) would most want to learn about.

This is where the brevity of these elevator speeches works in your favor. Because these speeches are incredibly short, you’re requesting very little time from the people you recruit to help you practice. This is the kind of favor that can take less than five minutes out of their day, and goes a long way to helping you reach your goals.


The elevator speech can be intimidating, because it is such a spur of the moment occurrence. However, with just a little bit of practice, you can put together a speech that will help you shine at a moment’s notice. If you’re willing to practice these tips a little bit at a time, you’ll be more than ready to make an impression when the opportunity presents itself. After all, you never know who you might meet on an elevator.