Historian for Hire: the Art of the Elevator Pitch

As historians we are often called upon to take copious amounts information and boil it down to its most significant and digestible essence. While this process may seem relatively straightforward when it comes to discussing casual factors for the downfall of the French Third Republic, boiling down our own research, work experience, and skill sets into a concise explanation can prove challenging. Perhaps the most useful tool for quickly introducing who we are and what we do is the elevator pitch. The elevator pitch is a short speech that you could deliver to a potential employer or contact, hypothetically, in the length of time it takes to ride with them in an elevator (about 60 seconds or 90 words). The pitch should contain three basic elements: who you are, what you do/have done, and what you want. Honing this skill is critical for graduate students of history, not only because it comes in handy at conferences, but because it makes us more competitive on the non-academic job market.

During the last week of February 2015, the history department at the University of New Mexico hosted the first career diversity conference sponsored by the American Historical Association and Mellon Foundation’s new initiative to broaden career opportunities for History PhDs beyond the professoriate. UNM is one of four universities (UCLA, Columbia, and the University of Chicago) participating in a pilot program to develop curriculum, work experience, career skills, and networking opportunities that may enable history graduates to find public and private sector careers. The conference, entitled “What Use Is History? Scholarship, Skills, and Careers,” brought together university faculty, museum professionals, librarians and archivists, NGO workers and activists, state historians, policy makers, authors and publishers, military and park service historians, research associates and consultants, and business people, to discuss how their backgrounds in history informs their work outside academia and how historians should market themselves to potential employers. The conference’s last session provided an opportunity for students to practice a “So tell me about yourself” elevator pitch in front of a panel of professionals from various companies and institutions who evaluated the speeches and offered advice.

As a participant in this exercise, I was grateful to have had the opportunity to run a version of my pitch by my “Historians in the Food System” seminar (the initiative’s field course) a couple days before. That cold run-through turned out to be a valuable exercise for me and my fellow classmates, as several things became abundantly clear:

1) You can not wing an elevator pitch.  You may think you know your own credentials but when put on the spot it is amazing how a lifetime’s worth of accomplishments simply becomes, “I am PhD student at the University of New Mexico.” Or on the flip side, you might end up spewing out everything you’ve ever done, from passing your comps with distinction to that time you were Employee of the Month at McDonald’s.  You need to write a script, memorize it, and practice it over and over.

2) Don’t sound like you are reading a script.  I know I just told you to memorize a script, but the goal is to know your talking points so well that you can focus more on how you are delivering them. You want your spiel to sound natural and conversational. You may want change up your word choice to avoid sounding canned, or pause slightly as if you are formulating your thoughts. Yeah, it may be a tad contrived but it’s better that sounding like a robot.

3) Don’t underestimate the importance of body-language. We’ve all heard it countless times: make eye contact, stand/sit up straight, smile, relax, hands should rest comfortably at your sides or used to gesture subtly, and don’t fidget. They are cliches for a reason.

4) You need to film yourself.  Practicing in the mirror just doesn’t give you an objective view of what you look and sound like because you are too wrapped up in getting out all of the information. Recording yourself with an iPhone or laptop allows you to really pick up on word ticks, analyze your body language, or, in my case, find out you talk like a Valley Girl when you’re nervous–that is, using an upward inflection at the end of declarative sentences so they sound like questions.

5) Find your hook. You need to key in on something that makes you unique and memorable and turn it into a punchy sentence that will likely elicit a follow up question. For one of my colleagues this was mentioning her passion for teaching history through video games; for me it was my eclectic non-academic work history, exemplified by the line: “I’ve moved from fashion to farming.” Which segues into my last observation:

6) You are more than your dissertation. So much of our identity in grad school gets wrapped up into our research topic. But the sad truth is, outside of your committee, people aren’t really that interested. Unless your research directly applies to the potential opportunity at hand, just give a one sentence topic statement, then focus on your skills, achievements, and work experiences using action verbs. The good news is much of the work you do on your dissertation lends itself to this type of language: “Over the last three years I . . .” (investigated, interviewed, collaborated, determined, analyzed, established, organized, wrote, translated, created, etc.)

After revising my speech with the information I learned in this session, I felt surprisingly confident presenting my elevator pitch to the panelists. I ran a little long (we were being timed) and the inflection in my voice may have raised an octave or two a couple of times, but overall I am pleased with how much I was able to pack into 60 seconds, without sounding like the micro-machines man. The panel’s general feedback to the students was positive. Besides some of the advice I listed above, they suggested we be explicit in stating what we are looking for out of the conversation, i.e. a position in their company; information; a contact, etc. (although, in my opinion, I do not think this would be appropriate in every situation). They also said they gravitated to the speakers who used natural hand/arm gestures as a way to open themselves up to the room. They did not care for the way almost all of us started our pitches with “Hi, my name is___. I am a Phd history student at UNM.” They suggested we begin with our hooks, or our purpose for approaching them, or at least a less generic greeting. Some also recommended that we close with a question, so the conversation is more likely to continue. The last thing you want to hear after laying it all out there is “Nice to meet you” and the sound of proverbial or literal elevator doors closing behind them.  In all, I found this to be a worthwhile exercise, and I suggest that any student headed to the job market give it a try. It made me think about and articulate how my skills and experiences as a historian could be an asset to a company or institution outside the academy. And practicing my pitch in front of people helped me work through my nerves and get my talking points down, so that hopefully when I do this for real I will feel confident enough to relax and be myself, which I suspect may be more integral to landing a job than notches on your resume.

*In case you’re curious here is the elevator pitch I gave to the panel. I will certainly revise it with the feedback I received and, obviously, in an actual situation, I would tailor the content to the relevant person or position, and probably not deliver the entire pitch in one breath.

Hello, I’m Candolin Cook, I’m a Phd student in history at UNM. My specialization is in the culture and mythology of the American West; but I’ve written on a wide variety of topics from food production to Albuquerque boosterism. I’ve done freelance writing for the Albuquerque Cultural Services department, and for the last four years I’ve been an associate editor at the New Mexico Historical Review. That experience has not only strengthened my writing and editing skills, but has exposed me to many facets of the publishing industry, including working collaboratively and on a deadline. Before graduate school I had a career in fashion merchandising and window display in New York City. And I spent ten years as a retail manager helping to run multi-million dollar stores. I’ve since moved from fashion to farming—I work on my fiancee’s organic vegetable farm in the North Valley during the summer and fall, and sell our produce at the downtown farmers market every Saturday. I have an eclectic skill set, and I am wondering what kind of skills your company is looking for?


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PhD student at the University of New Mexico specializing in the history of the American West--especially the Southwest, Western Myth and popular culture, Native history, and antiquities. I also work on my partner's organic produce farm in Albuquerque, and enjoy local food, old music, and good film.

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