Saturday, December 12, 2015

Some Observations About the Virtual Elevator Speech

First, you can also think of this as a virtual executive summary of your (white) paper.  An executive summary is typically a one-pager that gives the highlights of the longer document.  The executive summary is longer than the abstract for your paper and the audience is probably different.  The abstract is written for insiders who will read the full paper.  The executive summary is written for interested generalists, who might very well not read the paper.  They get their entire impression of what is going on from the executive summary only.

Second, in evaluating your elevator speeches, I had already read drafts of your papers.  So it is not possible to return to the state of ignorance where I don't know anything about the paper you are reviewing or about what you've written on that score.  But I do try to imagine a reaction from that state of ignorance.  It is what you should have in mind about your audience when constructing the elevator speech.

Third, a good elevator speech is quite difficult to write.  You want to tell a simple story, because your audience is ignorant and they need to follow along with what you have to say.  On the other hand, you don't want it to be simplistic.  You want your audience to find your story compelling.  So you need to get at the gist and get rid of any detail that can be learned about later, if somebody in the audience wants more information.  Determining what is essential and what is detail that is not critical to include is itself a hard thing to do.

Then there is the matter of communicating the key ideas in a way the audience will understand them.  Here the issue is whether your metaphors work for an audience that is not as knowledgeable about the subject as you are.  Image choice is not a trivial matter.  Neither are the short phrases you come up with.

Because of the time we had available, you likely short changed the process required in generating a good elevator speech.  It was the best that could be done under the circumstances.  My goal for you with this project was not that you'd produce a great elevator speech this time around.  Rather it was to get you a little familiar with the process so you can better appreciate what it entails the next time you have to produce something similar.

Finally, let me talk about a few common errors that people make in doing these things.  The first comes when somebody makes a presentation to a muckety muck (a VIP).  There is then some desire for that somebody to use the presentation to establish one's own credential, thinking (incorrectly) that the muckety muck will pay more attention to the argument if it comes from an authoritative source, so using your presentation to show you've really done your homework as a way to establish your own authority.  Invariably this means too much detail will be presented.  While that may show you've done your homework, it also shows that you don't understand the purpose of the elevator speech.  So you will fail in this case.

A second error is including a lot of jargon that is unfamiliar to the audience and not being aware that you are doing it at the time.  This makes the presentation seem like it is in a foreign language to some in the audience.  It doesn't work for that reason.

The third error is that in the process of taking out the jargon the argument gets dumbed down too much and the message is only very broad strokes generalities, which don't communicate the value in the work that has been done.  Plain English messages can nonetheless make arguments that require intelligence to appreciate.  That is the goal, even if it is not readily reached.

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