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L to R; Back row:  Scott Cassidy, Patricia Grabarek, Shin-I Shih, Lily Cushenbery, Christian Thoroughgood; Front row:  Amie Skattebo, Katina Sawyer, Rachel Hoult, Joshua Fairchild

TIP-TOPics: The Two-Minute Elevator Speech: Communicating Value and Expertise as I-O Psychologists to Everyone Else

Christian Thoroughgood
The Pennsylvania State University

As applied psychologists, we are frequently called upon to communicate our value and expertise in a manner that is more palatable to those unfamiliar with our science. Here at Penn State, Dr. Rick Jacobs refers to this skill as the “2-minute elevator speech” and has emphasized the importance of becoming comfortable speaking the language of practice that embodies the scientist–practitioner model. Articulating our craft to outsiders, however, is not an easy task, especially for graduate students newer to the field. As such, in this article I address some of the obstacles faced by I-O psychologists in communicating our knowledge and worth to outsiders and offer some potential solutions for graduate students looking to develop an effective “elevator speech.”

No doubt those practicing in the field will tell you the value of possessing a well-crafted “elevator speech.” Practitioners must be able to convey the science behind their company’s newest selection tools in an easily digestible form in order to obtain valuable business opportunities or clearly explain the process of job analysis and criterion-related validation when creating a tailored assessment procedure. They must be able to remove terms such as factor analysis, beta weight, p-value, and other deeply ingrained, esoteric jargon from their vernacular and replace them with more easily comprehensible concepts. Having the ability to effectively oscillate back and forth between communication styles with colleagues and clients, in fact, can make the difference between whether a consultant secures and maintains sustainable business over time. This skill, however, is not limited to those practicing in the field. I-O psychologists in academia routinely work on applied research grants in the public and private sectors and are often asked by higher-ups in industry and government to provide consulting services on key organizational issues. Thus, being able to effectively communicate one’s skills and expertise to those outside the field can carry with it important career ramifications for academics, including valuable ties to industry, increased data collection opportunities, and prestigious grant money, just to name a few.

However, there are certain challenges we face as I-O psychologists in promoting our services to the outside world. Certainly each and every one of us has faced the challenges associated with explaining to others exactly what we do. In fact, from the very first time one considers entering such a specialized field as I-O psychology, it is hard to avoid the confused looks and endless questions. We are not a traditional, mainstream profession such as medicine or law. Further, we are not clinical psychologists, who have seemingly become associated with the term “psychologist” more broadly. In fact, I venture to guess many of us, after disclosing our titles, have been pegged as clinical psychologists practicing in organizations. “No I’m not a clinical psychologist, but I suppose it would be nice if people could get some therapy in the workplace!” Moreover, to this day I am not sure even my parents know exactly what I am doing in graduate school. This became apparent to me recently when I overheard my mother discussing with a friend how my sister (who is pursuing a career in counseling psychology) and I could psychoanalyze her if she ever needed some free therapy!

Beyond these often misplaced categorizations, I-O psychologists, and psychologists in general, must often combat stereotypes such as the pervasive belief that psychology is “soft science” (Howard, 1994; Isaacs, 1999). No doubt some of these views stem from the fact that we deal with hypothetical, intangible constructs that some find impossible to quantify and measure. Moreover, psychology is a discipline marked by competing theories and necessary gray areas (Wertheimer, 1988)—after all, human behavior is inherently complex. Thus, because psychology does not tend to lend itself to simple, concrete answers, it is no surprise that psychologists sometimes run the risk of being dismissed as less scientific than their “hard science” counterparts in biology, chemistry, and physics. Moreover, in the fast-paced, bottom-line focused world of business, we must be in tune with the language of organizational decision makers and prepared to make clear, concise cases for the utility of their skills to organizations.

Speaking from experience, on several occasions I have had to work to promote the value of my profession to skeptical family and friends in business. Though frustrating at times, it is not hard to imagine how a layperson might be hesitant to place their full faith in expensive consulting services they know little or nothing about. For example, it is widely accepted that job candidates have higher face-validity perceptions of assessment centers (ACs) over traditional paper-and-pencil assessments due to the fact that ACs require individuals to perform observable job-related behaviors (Thornton & Rupp, 2006). Although such tangible samples of job-related behavior may appear more valid to those unfamiliar with our field, the nature of paper-and-pencil tests may seem removed from what individuals perceive as important to predicting future performance.

Further, Church, Waclawski, and Berr (2002) note the disturbing lack of professionalism in organizational development today where the increase in faddish, unscientific practices performed by unqualified individuals may be decreasing the credibility of organizational development as a whole. Combined with the aforementioned challenges, it is clear that I-O psychologists may sometimes face considerable difficulties in promoting their worth to organizations. As such, being able to effectively translate what we do for those unfamiliar with our science in an easily understandable and convincing manner is critical not only to obtaining sustainable business opportunities but also to ensuring that we have a lasting impact on organizational effectiveness in the 21st century.

So how can we as graduate students start developing our own “2-minute elevator speeches?” The easy answer is that this skill simply needs to be cultivated over time and through experience. For example, before one can worry about how to describe the process of retranslation and scaling to a client for a new performance appraisal instrument, one must gain a deeper, scientific, and practical understanding of these concepts through formal training and practice. No doubt graduate coursework serves to provide students with a solid basis for understanding the science behind many of the skills we have to offer organizations. However, nothing can substitute for actually getting one’s hands dirty and fine-tuning one’s “applied hand.” Although much of this experience inevitably occurs over the course of one’s career, certainly there are ways to begin developing a convincing “elevator speech” while still in graduate school.

At Penn State, we are fortunate in that one of the core components of graduate training is participation in a 3-year practicum program that requires students to work on multiple applied projects with outside clients and under the supervision of program faculty. Moreover, starting in their second year, students either lead or co-lead one of the roughly three projects the practicum program participates in annually. In addition to valuable leadership experience, such opportunities force students to interface with clients on real-world problems and translate many of our arcane practices into more easily understandable terms. Students can also obtain such experience through formal internships in industry as well. Before taking an internship, however, students should research various opportunities to ensure that the internship will at least offer the potential to interact with clients. Internships often vary in the amount of substantive experience afforded to interns; thus, significant care should be taken in identifying opportunities that will allow one to cultivate their “elevator speech.”

While learning new concepts and skills, students should be proactive in asking experienced faculty members how they might better describe such concepts and processes to potential clients. Although some students may cling to the pervasive view of academics comfortably residing in their “ivory towers,” in reality most experienced I-O psychologists in academia have a good deal of experience interacting with those in industry. As previously mentioned, academics often rely on industry contacts for prestigious grants and opportunities to collect real-world organizational data. As such, by actively seeking out advice from faculty, students may become more effective in translating I-O jargon and thus further refine their “elevator speech.”

In addition, regularly scheduled brown-bag sessions with fellow graduate students also offer the opportunity for students to translate their work for others. These sessions could easily incorporate practice in honing one’s “elevator speech” by forcing individuals to explain their thesis, dissertation, or any other research in 2 minutes to those unfamiliar with their project. Because such groups often differ in the interests, learning styles (e.g., visual vs. verbal), and perspectives (e.g,. applied vs. academic) their members bring to the table, they may aid everyone in grasping important concepts more quickly and thoroughly. Moreover, group members could explicitly ask each other to frame their work in a way that others outside our field would be interested in. You might ask a colleague, for example, “Can you explain this to me in a way that your grandmother would get excited about?”

Students may also find it useful to seek out research collaborations with those in other academic disciplines. Such partnerships force individuals to translate their research ideas into language more easily understood by those from different academic orientations and training backgrounds. Although many I-O psychologists collaborate with colleagues in organizational behavior programs located in business schools, there may be even more to gain from partnering with individuals from even more divergent academic perspectives. For example, a close colleague of mine is earning a dual degree in I-O and women’s studies. Although the two fields often clash in many respects, she has found creative ways to use both to inform the other. Through her thesis and comprehensive examination defenses, attendance at various conferences, and everyday conversations with those in both academic domains, she has learned how to take the esoteric concepts that comprise both fields and communicate them in ways that individuals from each side can understand.

On a more informal level, students can work on more clearly and concisely explaining what they do to interested friends and family. Although chances to interact with actual real-world clients may be relatively few and far between in graduate school, students will surely find more opportunities to practice their “elevator speech” with friends and family—especially those with related work experience in areas such as human resources. However, as I am sure many readers can attest, sometimes it is difficult to hold the attention of such audiences. For example, while recently discussing some of the details of the experimental design I utilized for my master’s thesis, I started to notice my parents’ eyes glazing over in utter confusion at the dinner table. No doubt my inability to hold their attention was partly a function of not explaining these concepts very well, but one must bear in mind that friends and family often do not have as much of an incentive to understand what we do (beyond grasping the basics of our profession and supporting us in our career endeavors).

Personally, one of the most valuable ways I have found to develop my “elevator speech” is by teaching an undergraduate course. Last semester I was fortunate enough to gain my first formal teaching experience as a lab instructor for a class in basic research methods. Two times a week I instructed students in experimental, correlational, and observational research designs. For most students, the course represented their first formal exposure to many of the scientific concepts underlying psychological research, including regression, ANOVA, moderators, interactions, scale development, and between-subjects factorial designs, among others. As such, my success as an instructor hinged upon my ability to take topics that often take years to master and explain them in ways that made sense to individuals encountering such material for the first time. Although challenging at times, especially in the beginning, this role forced me to utilize and develop various teaching strategies and to adapt to different learning styles in order to be effective. Further, unlike practicing one’s “elevator speech” in front of friends and family, students are held accountable for material covered in class. Thus, there is an incentive on their part to learn from you, making students a relatively ideal audience to practice one’s “elevator speech” in graduate school. If there is a lack of teaching opportunities at one’s school, there are always other options as well. For example, one might volunteer as a guest lecturer or put together and offer an I-O information-night workshop or discussion board for undergraduates interested in I-O careers.

Before concluding, it is important to note that one’s “2-minute elevator speech” may vary depending on one’s audience or the circumstances surrounding a particular situation. For example, the content of one’s “elevator speech” necessarily changes depending on whether one is communicating with family or friends versus when one is trying to sell a potential client on a future business collaboration. Thus, the “2-minute elevator speech” is not something that is developed once, neatly stored in one’s memory, retrieved occasionally, and used in the same way from one situation to another. Rather, it is continuously developed and modified over time with different versions retrieved depending on the nature of the situation. In so doing, an I-O psychologist with a flexible “elevator speech” is able to be effective with a wide range of audiences and in a variety of personal and professional contexts. Ideally, one should be able to communicate with three broad audiences: practitioners, academics, and lay people. For example, although one’s practitioner and lay person-focused “elevator speeches” are critical for job interviews, among other things, an academically oriented speech will go a long way in helping one share research with other scientists in the field.

All in all, I hope, if anything, readers have taken away from this article the importance of speaking the language of practice. We as I-O psychologists are inherently bound to the principles governing the scientist–practitioner model and thus must learn how to translate what we do for those we serve in organizations. Although it is natural for each academic discipline to develop its own way of communicating among members, our future as I-O psychologists hinges upon being fluent in the language of applied settings. Moreover, this need applies not simply to those pursuing research in consulting but for those set on an academic career. Developing one’s “2-minute elevator speech” will serve to benefit one’s career and make one a better I-O psychologist. 


     Church, A. H., Waclawski, J., & Berr, S. A. (2002). Voices from the field: Future directions for organization development. In J. Waclawski & A. H. Church (Eds.), Organization development: A data-driven approach to organizational change (pp. 320–336). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.  
     Howard, G. S. (1994). Why do people say nasty things about self-reports? Journal of Organizational Behavior, 15, 399–404.
     Isaacs, K. S. (1999). Searching for science in psychoanalysis. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 29, 235–252. 
     Thornton, G. C. & Rupp, D. E. (2006). Assessment centers in human resource management: Strategies for prediction, diagnosis, and development. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.     
     Wertheimer, M. (1988). Obstacles to the integration of competing theories in psychology. Philosophical Psychology, 1, 131–137.