Speaking about your project in a way that sparks interest and engages or even excites other people is very important. You need to understand your audience’s needs and expectations, the latest ideas in the field, what sets you apart from others and be crystal clear about what benefits you are promising to deliver at the end of the work. And I think you need to be ready to do this at a moment’s notice in whatever professional context you might find yourself in – you need to be ready to sell this thing ‘at the drop of a hat’.
Following on from the previous post about interviews and the very varied experiences I have heard about from candidates over the years I thought I’d draw attention here quickly to a technique that I use when speaking to researchers about how to prepare to face the panel.
The perfectly understandable tendency that many researchers have when speaking or writing about their research is to focus on what they are most comfortable and familiar with, quite naturally. As I have mentioned in more detail in other posts, for many researchers the question of why their work is important and interesting to funders and the wider world is often only mentioned after a long discourse on what the activities are and how they will be carried out. However, in my view, in most calls for funding the really competitive bits are the sections which cover overall and focused project objectives i.e., the differences the work is promising to make and which are basically trying to answer the questions about why this work and why now. Lots of proposals appear quite ‘out of joint’ as they overlook the critical ‘why’ questions in their haste to get to the ‘what’ where the researchers are most at home.
So, in my experience, many researchers are not focusing their communication on the most important part of their message and in general they are not selling the benefits of their work hard enough. I think that we should all be ready to communicate a clear message about the work with enthusiasm very readily and certainly when required to do so in a formal situation like an interview.
One good way of beginning to rebalance thinking away from processes to effects and benefits is called the ‘elevator pitch’ which is a widely used as a training and practice in sales and management to get people focusing on what really matters in the work they are trying to convince someone about. The idea is very simple but to do it well is more difficult. The premise is that it should be possible to deliver a high impact summary of even quite complex ideas in the time it takes for you to ride from the bottom to the top of a tall building. The imagined scene is that you are fortunate enough to get into the same lift as the CEO who has the power to support your idea and either help you to start a new venture or take the business to the next level. At the end of the elevator journey you are hoping to get a meeting or at least to exchange cards and continue the conversation by one means or another. Or, slightly more disturbingly, the scene is that you get into the same elevator with the same CEO but this time as an employee and as the doors close she turns to you and asks ‘what are you working on that makes a difference to this company?’
Examples of elevator pitches are all over the internet and they make for very entertaining viewing and we often view a few in ERC training sessions to get the idea of what they are about. Most are from the US where at universities and business schools they hold competitions. The winners are very impressive indeed. I have noticed that those who go on to win in the ERC are also pretty good at producing a pitch like this with very little preparation – a sign, I think, that they are on top of the work in the way that all candidates need to be.
I don’t for a moment suggest that these are exact models to copy for those preparing ERC proposals or interviews. But they are exaggerated cases of something that I think is very important and also quite rare which is the ability to speak precisely about the advantages of the work planned as well as about the processes. After all, a potential investor wants to know what’s in it for them and so the ERC, as a potential investor, wants to know what’s in it for science and eventually for industry and the public. So, the elevator pitch is acts as a form of shock or ‘short session’ therapy for some researchers to get them thinking about how to communicate key messages unambiguously and drill down on the differences they are promising to make.
Also consider that although some pitch competitions use 30 second slots and are very compressed, others give each competitor two minutes which isn’t all that far away from the five minute slots that some panels have used in the past at ERC interviews when the paper shuffling and coughing and projector problems that always seem to crop up are taken into account. In other earlier posts I suggest that it is quicker and better to write the short version B1 text first using the B2 suggested headings and then expand the B2 out of that as necessary but probably shorter than the limit of 15 pages. Here I would suggest that the much shorter elevator pitch will help the researcher get the core of the message in good order, communicate the differences promised and their importance and the process material can then be added to show how it will be done and to bring the presentation up the time limit. The process material should illustrate rather than lead and form the substance of the few minutes you have to grab the panel’s attention and get them to see that it is worthy of funding.
A story from my own professional past might illustrate something here, or may not. Just after finishing my doctoral thesis and being unable to find an academic job and in reality not all that committed to finding one anyway I was offered a job in a consulting company. Without being able to win work your career in a consulting company is likely to be a pretty short one and so I was soon involved in lots of proposal development and pitching – which is the very far distant origin of the work that I am still doing on ERC proposals. Having no training or background I made it up as I went along, years spent reading Derrida not really preparing one for selling anything – although some might say that would make anyone a master of BS. So, I quickly worked out that concise messages, clear promises, time lines, contributions to policy at high level as well as actionable results at the end of the work were what was selling and that it was also in short supply.
And in pitches it seemed clear that this needed to be even more refined and condensed – a few clear messages per slide, a few slides, clear hierarchy of ideas, no overlaps between the categories of ideas and good buyable promises: after a year or two of getting beaten up by clients and bosses it becomes second nature. I realised that I had taken it about as far as necessary when after one big pitch the director I was working with told me that the effect was about right – he thought the client was going to get their wallet out and buy it with their own money on the spot: it was a useful skill to have in those days. While it is not necessary to aim to sell hard in and ERC interview it does no harm to sketch out a very strong pitch and work backwards from there to fit it to the context. Remember, as mentioned in my previous post about interviews, most panels need waking up and grabbing by the throat somewhat and this is simply a way of achieving that. Imagine a hot dark room full of tired people after lunch deep in the graveyard slot after a hard morning of presentations all very similar to each other and design something to get through in that challenging environment.