Science Communication Pitch

An important part of Science Communication is what's known as the "Elevator Pitch." When loved ones ask researchers, "What do you do?", the researchers should be able to explain what they do in the time it takes to ride an elevator. Typically, researchers practice pitches in relation to their own research, but you all will practice creating pitches for the research that you have read for the class. This exercise is designed to build on the tweet summary assignment due May 20, the headline/lead assignment due May 21, and the opening paragraph assignment due May 23, applying the communication skills you have developed to yet another form. By the time we reach the pitch stage (May 29), you'll also have had experience with "hooking" readers or listeners, story-telling, using less jargon, and more.

How do you go about creating a pitch? Well, several folks have different recommendations. For instance, this site says:

The one-liner: Think of this as a plainspoken thesis title. If you had one sentence to explain your research, what would you say?

Under-two minutes: You have two minutes. Keep it short, and…go!
  • Introduction– Necessary if you are the one making the introduction.
  • One-liner – Incorporate the aforementioned one-liner to start things off.
  • Reel ‘em in – What is the major question/problem you study? What was your motivation (e.g. I noticed X but no one was looking at it…).
  • What are you doing? – How are you answering this question? For example, you could describe your use of field surveys, experiments or modelling.
  • And? – What have you found? What’s next?
  • Why does this matter? Don’t think of it as a justification for your science. Think of it as an opportunity to show others the value of science.

Common Mistakes:

  • Misjudging your audience. The main idea of an elevator talk is that it can be universal. Having said that, if you can judge your audience, it’s likely useful to take advantage of that. For example, you would likely tailor a message to a room full of 1st graders differently than a room full of museum-goers.
  • Too much jargon. Jargon can (and does) confuse and bore audiences. Learn how to identify and avoid it.
  • T.M.I. Don’t try to cram an entire thesis into two minutes. That’s the point. This is more about distillation and dissemination and less about the actual time it takes to talk about your science.

One thing that I personally disagree with from this particular set of rules is the idea that the Elevator Pitch has a 'universal audience.' It does not. You must always adjust your pitch, your description of the research to the particular audience. The following graphic illustrates why that is the case:


Your 'Why does this matter?' or 'So what?' will change depending on your audience. For instance, my research focuses on how people learn to adjust their attention in different contexts. If I were to discuss this topic with my family, I might talk about how in certain classrooms or with certain professors, I paid less attention based on prior experience, but a policymaker could care less. Perhaps then I would talk about how we could try to train individuals to pay more attention, like with TSA agents and airport security.

You can read more guidelines about elevator pitches here, here, and here. For the purposes of this class, we're going to assume that your audience is your loved ones (i.e., average Americans who don't know that much about cognitive psychology), and you will create a written pitch that's no longer than a paragraph (i.e., pitches are 30 seconds - 2 minutes max). I will give you feedback on the written pitch, and in class that day, we will break off into pairs, and you will practice your pitches with each other. You will also write about, and practice orally, how you would change your pitch for a different audience. The article you cover for the pitch cannot be the same one you are covering for your tweet/headline/opening paragraph or Duke research blog post assignment. Hopefully, everyone will have a pitch on a separate paper, but if not, we'll make sure that is at least true of the pairs.

Sounds good? Let's get to work!

Return to the top of the page