This week’s guest post is from Andy Porter, who is currently SGSAH’s Digital Curator. In his role, he sees a lot of PhD students giving the ‘elevator pitch’ version of their research and today, he reflects on how he developed his research tagline and how you might think about developing yours.
In the early stages of a PhD project, researchers are often advised to develop their “elevator pitch”. It sounds like a simple task. It’s likely you already have a working title for your project after completing and submitting a research proposal. Add on a snappy sentence or two explaining your motivations behind the project, and you’ve got a verbal business card ready to be used at a moment’s notice.
In reality, condensing a sprawling research proposal into a sentence or two isn’t as easy as it sounds. By the time you’re sitting down to begin your research, the grandiose ideas and finer points that made up the proposal may start to seem disconnected in your head. Or, perhaps, you’re not as in love with them as you were when first putting them down on paper.
This is absolutely fine, and, I’d wager, normal for the majority of postgraduate researchers. Some researchers might find that they overcompensate for this by repeating the title or tagline of their research proposal to everybody they meet, with little to no exploration beyond that. I know I did this when I started. This becomes an interesting experiment in itself; depending on the audience, they might interpret that title or tagline in many different ways.
Taglines and New Perspectives
For instance, my initial (and current, for what it’s worth) working title for my project was “Self-branding and new types of masculinity in online spaces”. To me, and my supervisors, this encapsulates everything I envision around the project in ten succinct words. It covers the gendered aspect of my research, the contemporary setting, and the context of social media-based self-branding culture. The phrase “online spaces” allows enough ambiguity that I may, if necessary, examine areas of online culture separate to social media, such as forums or static websites.
Repeating this title enough, however, and I found its usefulness quickly fall apart. As I engaged in conversations with people across my professional life, social life, personal life, and all other types of public discussion, I found that the title was being probed by all manner of new perspectives: “Is it not just social media?” “Why ‘new masculinities’?” “What is self-branding?” “Why online?”.
Far from being irritating, these types of questions can prove immensely useful for thinking about your research from a new perspective. While those asked at conferences or in presentations tend to probe the finer details of research – the ‘how’s and ‘why’s – the questions that come as a response to hearing your thesis title for the first time ten to probe the ‘what’, and allow you as a researcher to consider how your project might be received by a more general audience, and even consider the deeper meanings behind your own choices.
The difficulty, then, is not to overcompensate and continually change your working title or elevator pitch based on every question or response. This is also something I’ve been guilty of – every probing question feels like a ‘gotcha’, and a reason to pack up and re-brand the entire thing. The danger here is in losing sight of what made your initial title so succinct and relevant to you in the first place. My ten-word title soon become twenty, and at times almost twenty-five words long.
Approaching Different Audiences
Behind every project is a kernel of an idea. Something elusive and discreet, almost incommunicable, and quite possibly very personal to you. Your initial working title on your research proposal is possibly the best encapsulation of that idea, and that works for your own purposes. But how do you tailor this to different audiences?
When it comes to communicating your research to new audiences, whether that be in face-to-face conversation, over email, in Zoom presentations, conferences, and just about anywhere your research is going to be talked about, the trick is to communicate that kernel of an idea in as succinct and appropriate way as possible. This is the key to the elevator pitch. What many people don’t tell you that the elevator pitch isn’t one-size-fits-all – you might have as many as five or ten slight variations on the same pitch, ready to be deployed depending on who you’re talking to.
For instance, in job interviews with private organisations, they might be less concerned with the “hows” and “whys” of your project, and more concerned with the finer details – outcomes (or expected outcomes), their effects and implications. Friends and family might have only a passing knowledge of your subject. Your elevator pitch here might well be the working title with a slight twist, adding a phrase or two that helps explain some of the more verbose aspects of the project. When communicating your research at a conference or in presentation, it’s likely that you’ll be focusing on one aspect of your entire thesis. Focus on it – your elevator pitch, or project title, can simply be the backdrop to your presentation, ready to be explore if your audience express a desire to learn more.
Looking for Examples and Inspiration
In my role as Digital Curator for SGASH over the last six months, I’ve worked with a range of interdisciplinary researchers in showcasing their work to a global audience on the SGSAH Research website. One common feature across all of these fantastic showcases is that researchers know how best to communicate their research to their audience. The interdisciplinary showcase ‘Interconnected Scotland’ features four distinct themes: ‘People, Power and Place’, ‘Scotland, Europe and Beyond’, ‘Persisting Through and Adapting to Change’, and ‘Hope, Resilience and Community’. These are broad categories, ready for interpretation. All of these impeccable showcases know how to effectively home in on that core idea – starting with a broad view in which to capture the audience, before moving into the granular detail then engaging with the wider implications of the research, or even other potential areas of exploration. The SGSAH Research website is a good place to look for inspiration for how to package your own research!
Titles, taglines and elevator pitches all have their use. It’s always handy to have one ready to use at a moment’s notice, as you never know when you might enter into a conversation with someone who has an interest in your area of research. The key is to not to become too attached to these elevator pitches – they are essentially a representation of that spark, that kernel of an idea you had many months or years ago. You might even have another spark mid-project that alters the course of your research. This is also fine. Ultimately, it’s that spark that you want to use to anchor your research and find the right words to describe it – not the other way around.
If you would like to contribute to the SGSAH Blog, please email Vesna (firstname.lastname@example.org) with your idea.
Andy Porter is a PhD researcher in Gender Studies at the University of Strathclyde. His project focuses on self-branding and new forms of masculinity in online spaces. Andy gained an MSc by Research from the University of Edinburgh in 2017, with a dissertation focusing on the concept of the hive mind and the power of crowds in online contexts. Andy also works part-time for the University of Manchester, assisting with their marketing and communications. He is based in Manchester. You can find Andy on Twitter at @andyprtr.