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The Tech Comm Elevator Pitch: Answering the Question, “What Will You Be Doing, Exactly?”

By Charles A. Lawrence | STC Member

In a few short weeks, I’ll be starting my master’s degree in the Technical Communications program at the University of Central Florida. I was thrilled about the news, and I told anyone who would listen. In fact, even though my car didn’t need a wash, I got one anyway just so I could tell the car wash lady that I got accepted into graduate school. When she rang me up at the register, she congratulated me, although her enthusiasm was understated. I understood. I drive a used Honda Civic. The car wash lady probably sees luxury automobiles owned by people who completed their graduate degrees. Unlike graduate students, some of whom embrace weekly fasting to keep their heads above water.

I made a promise to myself that I’d return to that car wash after I finished my master’s degree and began my climb into a higher tax bracket and into an Acura, BMW, or at least a new Honda Accord. Take that, car wash lady!

But she wasn’t the first person who I told about being accepted into graduate school. The first person I told was my girlfriend. Thankfully, she doesn’t care that I drive a used Honda Civic (a good reason to hold on to her). However, she wasn’t quite sure what a technical writer was when I told her the news.

“What will you be doing, exactly?” she asked.

“Well, technical writers do a number of different things. They write software documentation, online help sections, a website’s frequently asked questions, that sort of thing.” I explained.

“Oh, okay,” she replied.

“Many years ago, technical writers were best known for writing instruction manuals. Like when you had to assemble a bicycle,” I explained further.

“Oh, right. My dad hated those instruction manuals,” she said.

“Um. Well, instruction manuals have gotten a lot better since then,” I said defending my future profession.

My girlfriend agreed and gave me a big, warm hug. It was a much nicer experience than telling the lady at the car wash.

A few days later, I told an acquaintance I was going to graduate school for technical communication.

“What will you be doing, exactly?” she asked.

I gave my acquaintance the same explanation I gave my girlfriend as to what a technical writer did. No hug, but I did receive a respectful “uh-huh,” from my acquaintance. This is the type of “uh-huh” response that suggested my acquaintance heard me, but didn’t want to know any details. I decided then that acquaintances are acquaintances precisely because they don’t want to hear your details. Hearing the headlines is fine with them.

As proud as I am of myself, I’ve been putting off telling my father about pursuing a graduate degree. I’m afraid I’ll get the same question from him that I got from my girlfriend and acquaintance. But I’m more afraid of his possible response.

“Instructional manuals for putting together bicycles? Yeah, I remember. I hated those things.”

“Well, dad, instruction manuals have gotten a lot better since then.”

It is common wisdom to have an elevator pitch at the ready when someone asks you what you do for a living (assuming it can’t be easily deduced from your occupation’s title: doctor, lawyer, teacher, or Elvis Impersonator).

An elevator pitch makes perfect sense, because people embrace the idea of having a better understanding about products and services they encounter. Maybe that’s the simplest way to explain our purpose to others: we make things easier to understand.

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