by Mary C. Francis
Scholars, why is your writing and research important to your readers?
If you can’t answer that question with conviction, in two sentences or less, I hope this post will persuade you to adopt a professional New Year’s resolution: devise an elevator pitch for whatever project you are working on now. My work involves reading and hearing a lot of pitches, so I value concise, intriguing descriptions of projects. But a strong elevator pitch isn’t only about trying to get published. (Though it definitely helps!) Being able to communicate clearly to any interested listener is part of keeping musicology alive and intriguing to colleagues outside the academy, as well as those inside.
I work for a university press with a strong musicology list, so I get to read, think, write, and talk about musicology every day. But the day-to-day texture of my job is more like being a movie producer than being a scholar. I spend the majority of my time reading, thinking, writing, and talking about budgets, marketing plans, and business models that will enable the University of California Press to get the best scholarship into the hands of readers who need it. Selecting the projects to publish is the first step, and as with any other situation you could name, first impressions are crucial.
The two-sentence pitch is an art form that all scholars, at every stage of their career, ought to master. I read and hear a lot of project descriptions that carry on for two paragraphs, two pages…longer…..without ever presenting a clear statement of the thesis and why it matters. What is the argument? Why is it important to readers? Two important questions, two sentences to answer them: that’s an effective pitch. Whatever details are supplied, I probably won’t be engaged enough to seek them out if the answer to those two questions isn’t clear immediately.
Why the rush? The elevator pitch isn’t about speed. It is about giving your ideas their greatest possible chance to make a strong first impression. A concise, clear statement of the goals of your scholarly work is the intellectual Swiss army knife you need to write job letters, create grant applications, make strong conference presentations, impress your dean, and have the kind of coherent exchanges with other academics that can lead to interdisciplinary dialog. Not to mention stimulating discussions with your in-laws, neighbors, and the people who have season tickets next to you. You are probably the only musicologist they will ever meet: think of it as a way to make a good impression on behalf of the profession as a whole. Higher education, and the humanities in particular, are the focus of an enormous amount of public scrutiny these days. A coherent and appealing presentation of your ideas is one of the most effective ways to show non-musicologists that what we do is interesting and valuable.
The first step to crafting a sure-fire elevator pitch is to take a step back from the daily work of researching, analyzing, writing, and teaching and ask yourself: why is this material important to my readers? Writing is solitary and difficult work, and a major project can take years to bring to the point where it is ready to be published. No one in their right mind undertakes an intellectual effort on that scale if they don’t believe what they are doing is important. A project becomes important to a scholar because she is fascinated by it, and in time, the fascinating aspects become so self-evident that she no longer perceives the need to articulate why the project might be important to others. This is every writer’s challenge and responsibility: explain to your audience why something they don’t yet understand, or even know about, is significant and should change how they think.
A strong pitch can and should be refined to suit different audiences. A job interview committee will respond to a pitch that relates clearly to the teaching they want you to do, while a publisher will be looking for signs that you understand how your work goes beyond what has already been published in your area. (The same goes for practicing delivering the pitch. Yes, you are going to practice giving your pitch before you go to the AMS conference, the job interview, the coffee date with the editor, your spouse’s company’s holiday cocktail party.) But regardless of the audience a strong pitch sticks to basics: be specific, be concise, be clear, don’t assume that the significance of what you are doing is self-explanatory. Don’t forget to offer palpable signs of why you believe in the work you do. Take it from someone who has heard of lot of pitches: clarity paired with enthusiasm is hard to beat.
Mary C. Francis is Executive Editor at the University of California Press, where she acquires projects in music, cinema and media studies. She worked at Yale University Press, Oxford University Press, and Mayfield Publishing before joining the University of California Press in 1999.