This post was authored by guest contributor Anna Trammell, Archival Operations and Reference Specialist at the University of Illinois Archives Research Center/Student Life and Culture Archives, and current member of SAA’s Committee on Public Awareness (COPA).
I’m at the airport waiting to board a plane when a fellow traveler strikes up a conversation. After we’ve commiserated about the shortcomings of the airlines and swapped details on destinations and reason for travel, I know what question is coming next: “So what do you do?” If you’re a new professional like me, you may remember your earlier responses to this question. Mine probably ended up somewhere between a frenetic rattling off of responsibilities and an apology. As the boarding began, I knew that my co-passenger had no idea what I did and was probably pretty certain I didn’t either.
Every encounter like this, whether it is with a stranger who you may never see again or another member of your own organization, is an opportunity to serve as an advocate for archives and archivists. We do really interesting things that will appeal to a wide variety of people. We can easily find ways to engage the public when given even the briefest opportunity to talk about our work. If I had a better response in my airport encounter, that interaction would have likely had no impact on my own position or institution. But I could have made that person aware of what archives are, what archivists do, and why our work is important. Having an effective elevator speech prepared can help make sure you clearly articulate this.
So what does a good archives elevator speech look like? Here are some tips to keep in mind as you begin to think about crafting your own brief pitch:
Skip the Details
An elevator speech should be concise (about 30-60 seconds). That doesn’t give you much time to grab the listener’s attention. Because every word counts, you won’t have time to dive into the particulars of your job. Keep it general. Hopefully, your successful speech will result in follow up questions from your listener, allowing you time to dive into more specific information about your own institution and role.
Focus On Your Listener
Consider your audience and adapt your speech accordingly. Are they wearing a Cubs baseball cap? Maybe you can grab their attention by mentioning that even sports teams rely on the work of archivists. Did they tell you that they are a student at a nearby university? Perhaps they’d be interested in the ways universities preserve student organization records or alumni papers. Listeners will remember a story, especially if it relates to their own interests. Find a way to center your speech on them.
Make it Personal
What really excites you about being an archivist? Engage your listener by sharing your enthusiasm about a particular aspect of archival work or your excitement over the ways archivists are tackling new demands in the 21st century.
SAA’s Committee on Public Awareness (COPA) created this handy guide to get you started.
Need more inspiration?
In 2007, SAA hosted an Elevator Speech Contest as part of American Archives Month. Lisa H. Lewis had the winning entry with this 28-word speech: “Archivists bring the past to the present. They’re records collectors and protectors, keepers of memory. They organize unique, historical materials, making them available for current and future research.”
On #AskAnArchivist Day 2017, Colleen McFarland Rademaker of the Corning Museum of Glass shared a video of her elevator speech:
Do you have an archives elevator speech? Tell us about it on Twitter using #ArchivesAWARE!