We’ve all heard that first impressions are critical, and the general consensus is that you have less than 30 seconds to make that impression. Unfortunately, many of us with technical backgrounds don’t put enough thought into what we say in that 30 seconds. As scientists and engineers we are trained to be very specific, and our first inclination is to list facts: our job title, the project we are working on, where we work, etc.
People buy why you do it
We can do much better than this. A great way to improve your first impression is to start with the reason your work matters to the average person. As Simon Sinek says, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” If you want to draw people in and quickly get them interested in your work, start by telling them why they care.
A recent experience showed me just how powerful this can be. A few weeks ago I was at Johns Hopkins University, and had just finished giving my talk “Can a Scientist Find Rewarding Career in Industry.” I was talking with a student from the audience, and asked him “So, what do you do?” He started by saying he was a PhD candidate in the Biomedical Engineering department, and an epidemiologist in particular. He went on to describe his research, but I quickly got lost in a flurry of technical terms that I did not understand. I did recognize ‘stem cells’ and ‘cardiac electrical response,’ but these were not enough to help me understand. I continued to ask more detailed questions, trying to grasp what he was working on, when finally he said: “Our hope is that eventually this research could lead to the ability to make an artificial heart out of tissue, rather than hardware.” Instantly I became much more excited about his research, because I now had a context that I understood and found very interesting.
Tell a better story with the same facts
I suggested that he lead with: ‘I’m working on stem cell research that could lead to a replacement heart made of tissue.’ He was clearly uncomfortable with my suggestion, and began to backpedal, saying “But we won’t be trying to make a heart in my lab, and my work is just one of many research projects that would be needed to to make this successful.” I assured him that I understood this, and that starting with the ultimate goal for his research isn’t being dishonest. Starting with the motivation for his work is much more likely to draw people in and have them asking questions, rather than having them go away confused. When you are looking for a job, this difference is critical.
As scientists and engineers, we are trained in graduate school to be very specific when we are writing for an academic audience. Unfortunately this becomes a real barrier to selling ourselves in the real world when we try to move out into a career in industry. Don’t worry so much about being precise. Worry about why other people care about your work.
As Simon says, ‘Start with Why.’