When I’m not doing skeptic research, my day job is in the software industry. For many years that industry has been driven by the creation of small, startup companies pursuing innovative new ideas. That pursuit has led, among other things, to the creation of the “elevator pitch.”
An elevator pitch is a quick but thorough explanation of your product. It has to be as short as possible, so you can deliver it during a typical elevator ride. It has to clearly highlight the positive qualities and other advantages of your product. The goal isn’t to include every detail, but just to convince someone your product is a good idea.
In the high tech industry, you hone your elevator pitch and practice it. You never know when you might run into a potential supporter, investor or partner.
At The Amazing Meeting 9 in Las Vegas recently, there were several other events scheduled in the same hotel at the same time. This led to many situations where skeptics were riding in elevators with non-skeptics who were curious about this event called TAM. But how do you explain everything that we know as skepticism (not to mention the incredible diversity of events at TAM) in something as short and pithy as an elevator pitch?
This led to TAM attendee and Twitter user @seelix to make this suggestion: “After listening to us fumble for explanations, I think next year we need a workshop on the Skeptic Elevator Pitch.”
It is an interesting idea. Trying to explain James Randi’s long and interesting career is hard during a short elevator ride. “Critical thinking” and “rationalism” can be difficult terms to explain quickly. You don’t want to be halfway done when that door opens.
If you pick a particular skeptic topic such as Bigfoot to use as an example, you run the risk of your pitch being rejected as trivial or silly. “Do people really still believe in Bigfoot? I thought that thing died out long ago.” If that happens you’ve lost them.
Conversely, for your example you don’t want to accidentally stumble on your audience’s personal “gris gris” - that one last irrational thing they still hold dear. If you use astrology as an example of something that is nonsense, and someone in the elevator still believes in astrology, you’ll alienate them before you finish your pitch.
Better communication was a major theme at TAM9, and several presenters such as Sadie Crabtree and Desiree Schell emphasized the importance of using positive language when engaging with those outside the skeptic movement. Steve Cuno has also emphasized the importance of this in his talks at TAM and in his post “Brand Skeptic” here at SWIFT as well.
I agree that positive language is important. Negative terms like “debunking” and “fraud” have their place, but they do not fit well in elevator pitches. You want to leave the “pitchee” with a good, positive feeling. You want them to remember what you are for, not what you are against.
With that in mind, here is my elevator pitch for skepticism:
“Skepticism is the intersection of science education and consumer protection. We help people learn from science to avoid spending their money on products and services that do not work.”
Note the use of positive terminology. Science education is a good thing. Consumer protection is a good thing. How can the intersection between these two good things be anything other than positive? And for pitches outside elevators, where a cocktail napkin might make a drawing possible, a Venn Diagram showing the intersection can be used, as shown here.
This definition covers a number of skepticism’s bread-and-butter topics, including alternative medicine, astrology, psychic readers, new age products and many more. Even the intrusion of creationism into science education is covered, since education is a service that parents purchase. All of these things involve testable claims that can be answered by science, and all of them involve the spending of money (in some cases tax dollars).
Admittedly there are many aspects of skepticism that are not covered by this description. For instance, belief in conspiracy theories or ancient astronauts rarely involves much consumer protection, other than perhaps the purchase of the corresponding books & videos. The teaching of critical thinking skills is a big part of skepticism, but also doesn’t touch much on either of the two terms used.
But keep in mind this is an elevator pitch, not a full and accurate description! The word pitch means that this is an attempt to sell something, not to completely define it in all respects. A pitch gets your customer or partner or investor in the door. Once they are there, you’ll have time later to describe additional details of what you are up to.
And so my skeptical elevator pitch is designed to get people interested in skepticism, no more. It has worked well for me since I first started using it over three years ago. Give it a try; it might work for you too.
Tim Farley is a JREF Research Fellow in electronic media. He is the creator of the website “What's the Harm” and also blogs at Skeptical Software Tools. He researched the information in JREF's Today in Skeptic History iPhone app and has given presentations at TAM 6, 7 and 9. You can follow him on Twitter at @krelnik.