Elevator speeches and more

Image result for big lebowski dream sequence
If you’re one of my students and I catch you clustering up at a conference with people you already know and see every week at home, I am coming for you like Maud Lebowski.

Last night, the UCLA AMIA Student Chapter hosted a “Conference 101” session focused on the upcoming AMIA conference in New Orleans, and on conference-going in general as an important part of professional life. The organizers kindly asked me to speak (and provided pizza!) but everyone present contributed something of value: advice and experiences of their own, thoughtful questions on important topics, and even suggestions on where to find good secondhand clothes to start building a conference wardrobe without going broke. (More broke than the airfare, hotel, and registration fees have already made you, that is–a topic about which Pamela Gay raises some excellent points  here).

I have advice on a range of topics for conference-goers in this FAQ document (PDF), but if I had to restrict myself to one piece of advice for emerging professionals, it would be this: Get your elevator speech down pat. Yes, conferences can be overwhelming, even for extraverts. I am not without compassion for those with social anxiety; I experience it myself, especially when I’m feeling out of my element at conferences I don’t usually attend. Whether you’re church mouse or loudmouth, though, when the opening night reception is upon you, you must enter that badly lit hotel ballroom fully prepared to answer the very basic question of “So, what’s your deal?” That means coming up with a concise self-introduction, practicing it until you’re really comfortable saying it to strangers (preferably while juggling a tiny plate of appetizers and a plastic cup brim-full of mediocre cabernet), and being able to adapt it as appropriate for your setting and audience.

Knowing this to be an essential skill, I drill my students on it at every opportunity: During our pre-term Media Archives Boot Camp, I force the entire group to deliver their elevator speeches to each of the dozen or so people who are hosting us for site visits and vault tours over the course of the week. I also make students who attend our  IS Tea Breaks introduce themselves to our weekly guests as payment for their slice of homemade cake (the cake is always delicious; the suffering is always worth it). By the end of their first year, you know what? They’re pretty darn good at it.

Since not everyone gets the benefit of my constant nagging conscientious social pedagogy, I offer here some of my elevator speech rules and suggestions, with examples:

Your stripped-down, most basic elevator speech should be one sentence consisting of your first and last name and some description of what you do or are all about.

Hi, I’m Snowden Becker; I manage the graduate program in Library and Information Science at UCLA.

Nice to meet you! I’m Anna Casitas, I’m studying preservation of early Latin American feature cinema in the NYU MIAP program.

Why first and last names? Well, if you’re networking you want people to be able to find you later. If you’re one of several folks with a fairly common first name at a conference, you want to give as many simple points of specificity as you can to differentiate yourself. Even my fairly unusual first name isn’t wholly unique–and just Googling “Snowden” by itself probably puts you on some sort of CIA watchlist these days. But if you Google “Snowden Becker UCLA” what you find will point you to the right person.

Don’t have a job? Not in a graduate program yet? Trying to break into the field? No problem. You don’t have to apologize for any of that in your elevator speech; just focus on your goals instead.

I’m Padma Gunasegaram. I’ve been working in software sales for the last few years, and now I’m looking to transition into more public-facing work in archives.

I’m DeAndre Williams, I just finished my undergraduate degree in film studies at Wesleyan, and I’m applying to grad programs in media preservation for next fall.

In each of these examples, the door is open for the person you’re addressing to go in a bunch of different directions–deeper into your background, if they’re interested (“Oh, what made you decide to change careers?”), or sharing a point of commonality (“My cousin went to Wesleyan! What a pretty campus”), or probing about your future plans (“Which grad programs are you applying to?” “With your sales background, are you interested in stock footage licensing at all?”)

Adjust the details for the folks you’re addressing. The nice thing about going to conferences is that you’ll often be among people who already speak your language (or one of their own, which you can learn). A good elevator speech can help you find shared enthusiasms easily when you’re amongst kindred spirits, or situate your work in and show how it’s relevant to a broader context if you are in a new setting. Here are variations I might use at conferences other than AMIA:

Society for Cinema and Media Studies: I’m an archivist; I study how audiovisual materials, especially non-theatrical media like home movies or police bodycam footage, are preserved as part of our larger cultural heritage.

Association for Library and Information Science Educators: I teach courses in UCLA’s MLIS program on archival administration and preservation of audiovisual materials.

Law Enforcement Video Association: I work in the Department of Information Studies at UCLA, and I teach and do research on how law enforcement agencies are managing new forms of video evidence.

Society of American Archivists, AERI, and other archives-oriented conferences: I’m researching evidence management in law enforcement agencies as a form of archival practice, and looking at police property rooms as a kind of community-based archive.

In each case, I’m highlighting the aspect of my identity or work that’s most relevant and helps distinguish me as an individual in that setting (for SCMS, the fact that I’m an archivist, as opposed to a media scholar; my teaching areas for ALISE; my connection with law enforcement for LEVA; my specific subfield or research specialization within archives work for archives conferences). It’s all different, but it’s all still me.

Details are doorways! Avoid being cagy or vague. I’m not entirely sure why, but I’ve noticed an increasing tendency for people (especially students who are younger) to avoid specifics when talking about their interests and experiences. For example:

I studied art in undergrad and then I worked for museums for a few years before I went back to graduate school.

[eyeroll] OK…What kind of art? Where did you go to undergrad? Which museums did you work for? Where did you go to grad school, and what for?

I studied printmaking at the Maryland Institute in Baltimore, and then I worked for the Walters Art Museum and SFMOMA before I went back for my MLIS degree at UCLA.

Saying that as your elevator speech instead doesn’t take much more of your time to deliver, but it gives the person you’re talking to a much richer, more concrete picture of your experience and life direction.

I think this sort of diffidence might stem from people’s fear of coming off as braggy, or being a name-dropper–but if that’s your concern, try to put it aside. In a networking context, those details count! Most fields are pretty small, and the conference-going types do tend to know one another. If you live in Chicago and tell me you’re volunteering for “a local film archive,” I’ll immediately ask “Oh, are you working with Nancy Watrous at the Chicago Film Archives? Or for Jacqueline Stewart and Candace Ming at the South Side Home Movie Project?” So you might as well tell me (or whoever) up front instead of making us drag it out of you. Striking the right balance between being informative and oversharing or droning on about yourself can be tricky–but just remember to keep it short and you should be fine.

When you’re done, stop talking. In all the examples above, the speaker gets to their point and then stops. This is a critical step, because it means someone else can then start talking–after which they, also, will stop, and the first person can respond to what they are saying. This is called “conversation.” Paradoxically, nothing brings a “conversation” to a screeching halt as quickly as someone fumbling about, dragging things along, or petering off weakly in their elevator speech:

“Oh–um…well, I guess I’m interested in digitization…like, what happens when people digitize things and then the originals aren’t as accessible…or…like, people can access them but it’s not the same as the original format…for one reason or another…like…digital to analog issues? And colorspace? Aaaaaaannd…yeah.”

OK. I know you’re frightened, folks, but you’re not helping yourself with this sort of thing. Let me help you: You’re “interested in the critical affordances of digital and analog media,” or maybe “the implications of digitization for access to recordings in their original formats.” Practice saying that until it just rolls off your tongue, and then come find me at the reception. We’ll talk!

2 thoughts on “Elevator speeches and more

  1. Dennis Doros November 22, 2017 / 7:27 am

    Wonderful! Just a few extra comments. At conferences, there’s usually a staff you can ask for advice, for help and introductions. AMIA has a wonderful staff for that. They are also there to help if anyone has made you feel uncomfortable or threatened. (See: AMIA Code of Conduct) Also! At AMIA, look for the Board of Directors. They have been elected to work for the membership and to help them. Feel free to go up to them for advice and assistance as well!

    • snowdenbecker November 22, 2017 / 1:29 pm

      Indeed! AMIA has a truly dedicated board and they are always ready to welcome newcomers and hear from members. Thanks for mentioning that, Dennis (and congrats on election as Board President)!

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