Bridge the gap

XIII.3 May + June 2006
Page: 65
Digital Citation

The elevator talk

Carolyn Gale

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This issue has one research-oriented article, "Discovering Modalities for Adaptive Multimodal Interfaces." The article by Prammanee et al. on mobile design begins on page 66 and is another example of publishing research for a practitioner audience.

back to top  Tips and Strategies for the Elevator Talk

My last column gave a few general tips on writing research for a practitioner audience. I'd like to expand on this by starting at the beginning, with a short abstract that I call the Elevator Talk.

Write as you speak. Imagine that you have walked into an elevator, and someone asks, "So, what do you do?" This elevator is not in a very tall building, nor is it particularly slow. You might have 30 seconds—what would you say? Take a moment and answer this question, without thinking too much about it.

Now it's time to convert "what you would say" into writing. First, put away your journal article, dissertation abstract, or grant proposal. In this style of writing, it is much better to write from a blank slate vs. trying to rewrite something designed for another audience. Writing as you speak also gives an air of informality, which is appropriate for a magazine format. If you find this difficult, grab a tape recorder or use voice recognition software to record a response. Don't get caught up in censoring yourself or analyzing content at this point; it's best to get something out on paper to start.

Once you have a semblance of a draft, read it over and think about the following points.

Include only one technical term in this talk—maximum. A 30-second Elevator Talk roughly translates to 100-150 words. With something that short, you don't have the space to define a lot of new terms! If you feel that you will be using a technical term throughout a longer talk, then it's fine to introduce it here-but you'll have to define it, as well.

This is where I start preaching the idea of "Progress, not Perfection" —and rarely stop! Many researchers think that if they have limited space or time to present something, that it's best to condense as many ideas as humanly possible. (Ever seen that at a conference?)

Go for quality, not quantity. Keep asking yourself, "If there's only one thing someone could remember from my Elevator Talk, what would it be?"—and chop out everything else.

Use an analogy or short story to clarify a concept. Look for something concrete that is easily understandable to a general audience, and use that example to transition to a more abstract theory. I still enjoy using the example of Einstein's description of a radio at the turn of the last century. How do you describe a radio to someone who has no concept of one? He started with imagining a cat, which is as concrete as you can get. Then, imagine a cat so large that the head is in Los Angeles and the tail in New York; then yank on the cat's tail and watch it meow; then remove the cat, and that's how radio works.

Obviously, I'm not asking any of you to turn into Einstein overnight, but if there is a way for you to transition from the concrete to the abstract (provided that your research is more theoretical), give it a try and see if folks understand your analogy.

Avoid giving only background information. Many researchers fall into this trap of giving nothing but disciplinary background, and never get to what they actually do! The passive voice is the kiss of death in this context, so use action words to describe exactly what is being done. Examples of more action include: I am studying the effects of... or Our lab conducted an experiment that compared...

Situate the work in a larger context. Why is this work important? You might want to think about starting your Elevator Talk with a concrete question that draws the reader's attention, or presents an interesting puzzle that invites the reader to think more about a problem. Examples include: Have you ever wondered why... or We know that [this concept] is a huge problem...

Practice your Elevator Talk on unsuspecting folks. When you feel ready, try reading your talk aloud to someone who's not a colleague, and ask him/her to repeat back what you said. This is a quick way to see whether your meaning came across as intended! If your recipient didn't understand what you said, ask exactly when he/she became lost. Use this feedback to continue revising your talk accordingly.

Good luck! Next time, we'll transition to tips for a Hallway Talk.

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Carolyn Gale
National Center on the Psychology of Terrorism and Stanford Unviersity

About the Author:

Carolyn Gale has more affiliations than she can keep track of, but has general interests in learner-centered design and science communication. She manages the Learning Technologies unit at the National Center on the Psychology of Terrorism, teaches communication courses as a visiting scholar at Stanford University, co-owns a graphic design firm, and is co-founder of a global network of research communication consultants.

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©2006 ACM  1072-5220/06/0500  $5.00

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