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My Skeptic Elevator Pitch PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Tim Farley   
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.

Skeptic Venn DiagramThis 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.

                       
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written by Cleon, July 28, 2011
I think the last thing we need is more talk about elevators.
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written by KMLawrence, July 28, 2011
This is an excellent way to briefly explain skepticism to my coworkers and clients. Many of them are curious about TAM, since I get so excited to go each year! Thanks for the post!
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written by Richard Harriman, July 28, 2011
I think the connection between consumer protection and skepticism is so often overlooked. As someone with a foot in both places it's great to see the connection made so well.
http://botswanaskeptic.blogspot.com/
http://consumerwatchdogbw.blogspot.com/

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written by RubiconAZ, July 28, 2011
There were many casino employees that asked as well. Many of them thought that we believed in UFOs, Bigfoot, etc., because they the books. I did fumble around with a good explanation more than once, so I will keep this handy!
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Votes: +5
Great idea
written by Ivan B., July 28, 2011
Thanks for this, I remember many occasions when I could have used this!
Does anyone have a good idea about a secular humanism (Humanism) "elevator pitch"? I find Humanism harder to explain in a few sentences than skepticism.
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Maybe more specific
written by denver, July 28, 2011
I think it's a good idea, and a good start at an elevator Pitch. I think, though, for the uninitiated, it is still a bit vague. I'd recommend a template that uses some currently important topic at the time of TAM, to better engage the listener:

“We help people learn from science to avoid spending their money on ineffective products (such as Homeopathy, if it's in the news), or avoid putting too much stock in pop-tv health advice (such as the dangers of Vaccinations, if it's in the news)."

Something along those lines, where it doesn't go into details, but still incorporates something the listener can relate to.
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Votes: +1
Well Said
written by DataJack, July 28, 2011
This was great, really well done.
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written by ticktock, July 28, 2011
My pitch was "We are mythbusters with a natural view of the world who uses science to challenge paranormal and unusual claims."

And then the response was, "So, you make the machines that the ghost hunters use on TV?"

Sigh.
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written by MadScientist, July 28, 2011
"you don’t want to accidentally stumble on your audience’s personal “gris gris”"

Not accidentally perhaps, but how about intentionally? And why shouldn't we address someone's pet nonsense? Let's say we have Skeptic X who is very happy indeed except that he or she believes in Bigfoot. Oh no, let's not talk about bigfoot - that would alienate Skeptic X - after all, what harm can that belief do?
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written by M1k303, July 29, 2011
"Not accidentally perhaps, but how about intentionally? And why shouldn't we address someone's pet nonsense?"

We SHOULD address their nonsense, in the proper forum, but not in a one-minute introduction to skepticism. The point here, I think, is to not lose them in that very brief conversation.
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My snippet...
written by JasonSkeptic, July 29, 2011
I was in a debate with a friend of mine one time because she started selling Monavie (one of those MLM's that sell the juice with the borderline illegal health claims). She asked why I cared so much, and I came up with the (IMNSHO) simple and elegant: "Skeptics care about evidence and about people, and have a great disdain for when people abuse the former to deceive the latter." I've used it a couple of times since, when asked why I do what I do.
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To MadScientist....
written by krelnik, July 30, 2011
I think M1k303 said pretty much exactly what my reply would have been. There is a time and a place for everything.
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written by John Santos, August 04, 2011
I'm a little late here, but I agree with M1k303 and krelnik... The reason it's not the time and place is because it would take too long and to try a high-speed brain-dump explaining why their belief is not supported by evidence would just drive them away as quickly as they could escape the elevator. I think a better strategy would be to lay a little ground work to pique their curiosity. The best possible outcome would be if they came back to you later and said "tell me more."

That said, i think the elevator pitch approach needs more work. Not because it's wrong, but because it doesn't cover everything that skepticism is all about. The science education part of the Venn diagram seems pretty close, but I would emphasis more the scientific method, since to many people "science education" implies rote learning of disconnected facts. (Think how many people fail to appreciate the beauty and power of evolution by natural selection because they don't understand the true meaning of the idea of a scientific theory. But I don't see how to explain that in 30 seconds.)

The bigger problem is the consumer protection angle, not that it's wrong, but because it only covers a small part of skepticism, and even then consumer protection is about a lot more then just not wasting money on worthless things. A lot of alt-med doesn't just cost people money, but also their health and even their lives. I think that side of the Venn diagram needs to be broadened to include the benefits, both abstract and material, of living and thinking in accordance with reality instead of in opposition to it. Basically, how skepticism promotes life (science-based medicine), liberty (understanding the social consequences of false beliefs) and the pursuit of happiness (few things are more fun than learning about the universe around us, but then I'm a science nerd. smilies/grin.gif )

Can we get all that into a 30 second speech?
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written by krelnik, August 05, 2011
Well, I admitted in the article it doesn't cover anything. Perhaps I'm biased because the stuff I've focused on in skepticism tends to be the things that can cause harm, like alt-med. Where there's potential for harm, usually that can be framed as a consumer protection issue.

If you can figure out a way to fit all the other stuff into a 30-second elevator pitch, more power to you! I will want to hear that pitch so I can steal it. smilies/cheesy.gif
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written by krelnik, August 05, 2011
err, everything not anything. Man, you'd think I'd know how to type by now.
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