#3TweetsMax: Perfecting the escalator pitch

A new and ongoing crowd-sourced experiment in social media and academic professionalization

Graduate students preparing for the job market in the humanities will often be advised to prepare an ‘elevator speech,’ a carefully rehearsed but seemingly spontaneous schtick on the dissertation that can be pulled out at the drop of a hat for interviews, cocktail party conversations, cab rides at the MLA or AHA, and so on.

There are sound reasons for going through this exercise, particularly for those heading toward interview season. A helpful piece by Claire B. Potter published a while ago in the Chronicle of Higher Education gives some helpful tips on preparing for this portion of the interview, and there’s skads of advice on other sites that speak to this move in the professionalizing game. The consensus seems to be that your elevator speech should be anywhere from two to five minutes long, suitable for the first part of your answer to that inevitable  interview-opening question: “Tell us about your dissertation.” I’ve been teaching our department’s dissertation seminar over the last two semesters (intended for students crafting the prospectus), and one of the early assignments was to write, practice, and deliver the elevator speech to classmates. Even when we’re very early on in a project we should be able to talk in some detail about what we’ve been doing with our minds and our words. Like epic, tragedy, and romance, the elevator speech is a timeworn genre that isn’t going away.

But there’s a shinier coin to have in our pockets. Let’s call it the Escalator Pitch, despite the corporate resonances of the term (“The client is not interested in an investment relationship,” as one recent post on the escalator pitch puts it, “but might be interested in a simple services relationship”). The 2-to-5-minute Elevator Speech is well suited for interview situations, when attention is focused on you and your work for a sustained period of time. The Escalator Pitch, by contrast, is for those much more frequent occasions when you have only an awkward moment or two to tell someone new about your work.

And it isn’t just for graduate students. All academics with any kind  of research agenda should be able to answer that one question so many of us actually kind of dread:

“So what are you working on?”

It’s surprising how often even safely tenured scholars with a lot of writing and publication behind them can be flummoxed by this simple question. We gasp for air, stumble about, or make some lame, self-deprecating attempts at humor, and eventually mumble something vague or incoherent, thinking as we do that the project is simply too complicated to describe in a couple of sound bites–and then walking away wishing we’d been able to do just that.

One of the reasons we can often find it so difficult to answer the “So what are you working on?” question simply, directly, and–above all–briefly has to do with context, and here we need to step out of the immediacy of the interview situation for a moment. For we’re asked this question most often, I suspect, at those times when a two-to-five-minute answer wouldn’t be appropriate, or polite, or even logistically possible. Even if your interlocutor is genuinely interested in what you’re working on rather than simply being courteous, chances are the two of you are standing at a crowded reception, or sitting around a loud dinner table. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve witnessed a colleague or a graduate student (or yours truly) act taken aback or put off by “So what are you working on?”–as if it’s a surprise that a visiting scholar would use the question to spark dinner conversation following a guest lecture. One of the greatest favors we can do ourselves as academics, then, is to have at the ready an articulate, intelligent, and briefly conversational answer to the question we’ll all be asked on a regular basis in the course of our academic careers.

In this spirit, I started an experiment with my dissertation seminar that would use an inherently short-form medium to generate responses to this question. I asked the students to send me a conversational summary of their dissertations in the form of three or fewer Tweets. Not the dissertation title, not a list of chapters, but a succinct, informal answer to the question “So what are you working on?” in 420 or fewer characters (i.e. the total character count of three Tweets). Not all the students have Twitter accounts, and I didn’t require them to open one–an e-mail containing the text of potential Tweets would do just fine. (I also forgot about hashtags and handles, meaning the tweets would have an even more constrained character count.)

While waiting for the first responses, I tweeted (of course) about the experiment and got a quick reply from Elliott Visconsi (@EVisconsi, currently DGS in English at Notre Dame), who suggested that I create a hashtag and share the query more broadly. I then wrote and sent the following Tweet (note that all Tweets in this post are ‘live’, meaning you can click on usernames, hashtags, or the Follow button to see, follow, or join the conversation and any of its participants):



Offering myself up as the first guinea pig, I 3TweetMaxed about my book in progress:



The next to post was Mai-Linh Hong, a Ph.D. student in the seminar who’s



She was joined by Lauren Hauser (@laurenhauser), a modern Americanist also in the dissertation seminar and writing on what she calls the



Mai-Linh then tweeted a version of the original message to her Twitter followers, using the same #3TweetsMax hashtag, and things have cascaded from there. A third-year Stanford law student (@alesta) tweeted her article-in-progress on cyberconflict law and social science. Alex Gil (@elotroalex), Coordinator of Digital Scholarship at Columbia, tweeted his work on textual remix and repetition. Elliott himself sent in a contribution that brings together his three major ongoing projects in one 140-character Tweet:


Timothy Morton (@the_eco_thought) three-tweeted on Dark Ecology…


…while Jeffrey Cohen (@jeffreycohen, English at GWU, founder of the blog In the Middle) unitweeted on the lithic…



…and Jonathan Hsy (@JonathanHsy, also English at GWU and blogging at ITM) sent a Tweet on interspecies bilingualism:



I’m not sure what will come of this experiment, though a number of contributors have already commented on the usefulness of this highly economical form in crystallizing complex ideas for informal situations. I’ll be eager to learn where this goes as the situation on the ground develops. Would/did/do you, as a dissertator preparing for the market, find it a helpful exercise? If you’re a more established scholar, am I right in thinking we can have a surprisingly hard time answering the question above–and if so, is such an exercise in short-formalizing our current work at all valuable? Are there other roles for Twitter (the social medium in question here) in the realm of professional development in the humanities and humanistic social sciences?

In any case, you can see these and other real-time examples as they arrive by discover-searching the #3TweetsMax hashtag. Please circulate this post, and do add your own contribution to the #3TweetsMax string. Feel free as well to comment below on your assessment of the usefulness of this experiment in social media and academic professionalization.

7 comments on “#3TweetsMax: Perfecting the escalator pitch

  1. Jonathan Hsy on said:

    This is a really great idea, Bruce – thanks for initiating this experiment! Mastering the pithy “elevator pitch” is something that students preparing to go on the job market certainly need to practice — and you’re right that even “seasoned” members of the profession can struggle to come up with a clear and short answer to what *appears* to be a commonsense question (what are you working on?).

    I, too, am uncomfortable with the “business jargon” resonance of the term “elevator pitch” but I do think it’s important that we in the academy (and perhaps especially humanists) know how to communicate what we do to people who aren’t specialists. There are practical implications for this — can you write a grant proposal and get someone totally outside your field to get “on board” with your project? — but there are less mercenary implications too. If we want to be effective teachers, we need to express ourselves clearly and try to use accessible language. If we think of ourselves as doing work that can somehow have a life in the a wider world beyond the classroom, campus, or “ivory tower,” then we should welcome chances to communicate our interests and give convey our ways of thinking to other people.

    • Bruce Holsinger on said:

      Thanks, Jonathan, and thanks for the nice link/shout-out on ITM. And what you say about clarity in teaching makes loads of sense. I often surprise myself by how inarticulate I can be about my own work in casual conversation with students…

  2. Simran Thadani on said:

    Thanks for this. GREAT use of form as a forcing function.

    By the by, I don’t get thsi “discomfort” about the corporate connotations of the term “elevator [or escalator] pitch”. I think academics, and the academe generally, could use a lot of lessons from the business world — and of course I don’t mean embezzlement, selfishness, greedy profiteering, etc. :-P I mean BREVITY, clarity, cogency, urgency, ACCOUNTABILITY, fire-ability, negotiations, COLLABORATION, money smarts, sharp job interview prep, CONFIDENCE!!!… The list goes on. [I am guilty of many of these failures, too.] And I don’t only say this because I’m married to an MBA. I see all of these as just facets of efficient and optimal functioning, and good citizenship, within a larger organization or field with common goals.

    *cough* Anyway, I like the idea of the escalator pitch. If I told Gautam that my *elevator* pitch (were I to have one — I’m not on the academic market) had to be 2-5 *minutes* he would laugh me out of the room. Escalator is much more realistic! For in reality, the average elevator ride is under 60 seconds. Factor in specialized sub-fields and possibly a bit of jargon and your listener’s attention span — already taxed — may drop even lower than that. I’m guilty of droning on and on about my work, myself, way too often; and I have seen too many eyes glaze over to think that 2-5 minutes is realistic. This said, of course I know things work differently in different industries, and if the “elevator pitch” is really the answer to an interview question (rather than the “escalator pitch” which is a 30-second-conversation tool) then I get why it can/should be 2-5 minutes. But it’s admirable that you are getting your students to work toward a much lower number than that, for that time frame is certainly not feasible in the awkward-moment (or real-world) contexts… Nor is it how that vilified business world of which you both speak thinks of the “elevator pitch”.

    • Bruce Holsinger on said:

      Thanks Simran. “Form as a forcing function”: maybe I should have asked them to alliterate…and I agree with you about not shying away from the good things about the business world, though as someone who teaches at a university that just went through a leadership crisis because of its president’s alleged hostility to ‘strategic dynamism’ I’m still a bit wary… Now, can you #3tweetsmax your comments? [If I liked emoticons I\'d insert one here]

  3. sayyapillai on said:

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