Trends and Issues in Higher Ed

May 1, 2014

Learning networking skills with elevator speeches

UW Bothell Career Services and School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences: Helping students prepare for what’s next

Faculty on UW campuses are partnering with career center professionals to help students link their educational experiences to their professional ambitions, and to develop leadership skills they will need in the workplace. Together, they are making explicit the link between coursework and professionally-relevant competencies so students are aware of their own abilities and can articulate them to employers or graduate admissions committees. Career services programs at the UW are even finding ways to partner with interested departments to build practice of professional skills into the curriculum. Students value the practice they gain in professional skills such as networking and the opportunity to integrate their academic and professional development.

Graduating seniors are often told they should develop an elevator speech, a 30-second talk about their experience, goals, and skills that they can adapt on a moment’s notice should they happen to meet a potential mentor or employer. In UW Bothell’s Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences (IAS) capstone courses this “should” is transformed into a “how to.” “Students practice giving an elevator speech so they’re prepared to explain their education and to tell a persuasive story about their abilities—one they can back up with specific examples and evidence—in an off-the-cuff situation,” says IAS Dean Bruce Burgett.

Above, Dean Bruce Burgett (center) works with Career Counselors David Parker Brown (left) and Kim Wilson (right) to include professional preparation into UW Bothell’s IAS curriculum.

Photo by Marc Studer, Media Producer, Production Services, Information Technologies, UW Bothell.

The elevator speech exercise is just part of a focus on career and life strategy that begins freshman year, the result of student feedback requesting more help in developing professional skills. The program initially focuses on reflection to help students get a grasp of their strengths and knowledge with more sophisticated career preparation added during students’ junior and senior years.

By the time seniors reach the elevator-speech activity, they have already participated in community-based learning or an internship, created an ePortfolio of their experiences both in and out of class, and drafted an application to either graduate school or an employer. For groups considering similar activities, the IAS team offers this advice:

Realize that students come with different assumptions about networking: “Students come to this activity with different assumptions about whether, how, and with whom they should network. There are cultural and class issues at play, too,” says Associate Professor Wadiya Udell, one of a team of IAS faculty who work on the program’s capstone. “In the elevator speech activity students learn that it’s okay to approach people, and they learn the right way to do that without coming on too strong or clamming up. Most importantly, they learn they need to prepare and not expect these opportunities to just happen.”

Explain what an elevator speech entails and how it links back to UW education: Students review the application to a job or graduate school that they drafted earlier in the program and consider who might review it, perhaps an HR professional at Amazon, a graduate admissions committee, or a real person they know. They then role-play encountering this individual in person, introducing themselves, and making the case for why they’re a good candidate. They’re told they have less than a minute to complete these three steps:

  • Make a claim about themselves to a specific potential mentor or employer
  • Tell a story about their education and why it’s relevant
  • Support their story with evidence and specific examples

Kim Wilson and David Parker Brown of UW Bothell Career Services lead students through the activity, in which students spend 30 minutes preparing their elevator speech and then deliver it three times to peers who provide feedback. “We don’t give them much lead time because we don’t want them to sound rehearsed. In addition, they need to learn to think quickly and be flexible because they can’t give the same pitch to everyone,” says Wilson.

At the discretion of the faculty involved, students sometimes practice their elevator speech in an actual elevator. “The building is three stories tall, so the students have about 45 seconds to make a convincing claim about their education. It’s a tight time frame, but it’s also realistic and forces the creation of a focused narrative,” says Burgett.

Above, UW Bothell students practice delivering their elevator speeches with Career Counselor David Parker Brown (center). Students from left to right: Maritza Chavez, Mike Thom, Hanan Osman, and Mojan Ahmadi.

Photo by Marc Studer, Media Producer, Production Services, Information Technologies, UW Bothell.

Let students push through nerves to build confidence: “The students have no idea how difficult it is, and the first time they give their speech it’s terrible,” says Udell. After feedback and several tries, students build confidence and begin to get the hang of presenting themselves effectively.

Activities like this can make a real difference in a student’s life: “Student feedback has been overwhelmingly positive,” says Wilson. One former student who worked as a barista pictured a regular customer, an attorney, when he practiced his elevator speech about pursuing a career in law. When he had an opportunity to speak to the customer, his practice kicked in and he landed an internship at the customer’s law firm.

Partnering with career counselors helps faculty support students: “Researchers often aren’t the best networkers,” admits Udell. “Working with Career Services makes it much easier to help students learn these skills.”

Learn More

Read the full Provost report on how to prepare students for life after graduation.