It was a really great opening. I was immediately intrigued, and everything that came next totally related to me personally.
He went on to describe how everyone thinks carefully when they’re deciding where to live (What school district? What commute? What kind of neighborhood do I want?). He elaborated about how frogs also have to decide where to live, but that his research results show that they don’t always make the best decisions. We went on to discuss habitat fragmentation, habitat management decisions, and modeling.
Picture the two of us at a table, in the midst of a large sectioned-off area set up for 50 people. If you could pan out beyond that, you’d see that we’re actually in a large exhibit hall in an even larger conference center. You can hear the hum of other people talking and see movement all around us. In this situation I’m supposed to be the “teacher” and he the “student.” I’m leading a Career Central session on “Honing your Elevator Pitch” at ESA’s 2019 Annual Meeting, and he’s the only person who came.
Clearly this person doesn’t need much help or advice from me – he has already thought of a creative, relatable, and compelling way to talk about his research! After chatting a bit, I send him on his way with a handout (containing some pitch-related resources), some reminders to tailor language for his audience, and encouragement to practice as much as possible while he’s here at the meeting.
On one hand I’m disheartened – only one person showed up to my session. On the other hand, I’m elated. This student, who studies the housing market of frogs, is an excellent example of a young scientist who acknowledges the power of effective communication and the art of “pitching.”
In our Strategies for Success course, the final session is all about pitching. We do this for a few reasons: first, it gives our participants a chance to practice in a friendly environment; second, it links to all the other skills we teach in the course; and lastly, it’s fun! Participants get to role-play funders and give each other feedback.
You never know when you might be in a random situation and have an opportunity to make a “pitch” and you never know where that pitch might lead! Practice, be prepared, and practice some more. The more you practice, the more natural your delivery will be when you’re in a real pitching situation. This will let you truly convey your passion and enthusiasm about your research and the work you do.
From one imperfect pitch-er to another, I wish you much practice, and much success.
Drs. Aaron Weiskittel and Brian Roth work for the University of Maine, Orono. Aaron is the Director for the Center for Research on Sustainable Forests (CRSF), founded in 2006, and Brian is the Program Leader for the Cooperative Forestry Research Unit (CFRU), a core research program of the CRSF, active since 1975. Both have experience working in forest industry and have a desire to see on-the-ground implementation of research, and are thus keenly suited to conducting stakeholder-driven programs unique to the university.[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]A few years ago, Aaron and Brian found themselves transitioning into leadership roles and being presented the opportunity to make structural changes within their programs. [/perfectpullquote]
A few years ago, Aaron and Brian found themselves transitioning into leadership roles and being presented the opportunity to make structural changes within their programs. Not surprisingly, one of the main challenges was lack of financial resources, and how to use those limited funds to maximize value for their stakeholders. In Aaron’s words, “As academics, we aren’t trained to be leaders or organizational strategists. The challenge is to maximize the efficiency of research dollars and do that in a way that appeases the stakeholders. We are aware of the sensitivities and differences between those groups, and we need to find commonalities.” They learned about SBI through a site visit from the Organization of Biological Field Stations, and decided that the course sounded valuable to help navigate their transitioning roles. Aaron noted that in a tight funding environment, “The colleague discount was another incentive to us both coming- that made a difference.”
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“The colleague discount was another incentive to us both coming- that made a difference.”[/perfectpullquote]
SBI helped them develop the tools and methods to think strategically about leadership, as well as provided them the time and space to focus on personal development. SBI is unique in that throughout the course, it gives participants the opportunity to do just that- apply tools and methods to their program. “A key element of the course was going through the materials and devoting a good portion of time to doing self exercises. Knowing we can go through a systematic process to evaluate and think about potential changes is critical” Brian says, noting that the course also highlighted communication with stakeholders about business models and the value of research. Brian has found that increased program capacity is a necessity to stay relevant and create a buffer for external events- and SBI has helped him to attract new members, and strengths, to his research cooperative.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]SBI helped them develop the tools and methods to think strategically about leadership, as well as provided them the time and space to focus on personal development. [/perfectpullquote]
Most recently, Brian revisited the SBI workbook when cooperative members requested a business plan for his proposed idea to build capacity for the program by increasing membership outside of the state of Maine. This presented a challenge- selling that idea to members who liked things the way they were and resisted change for fear of diluting the mission. He used the logic model, did a SWOT analysis, and created a presentation to communicate the strategic decision to concerned stakeholders. “I had to speak their language and be very clear and financially driven. The SWOT analysis took on a whole new meaning when I was actually looking at our strengths and communicating advantages and threats to members both inside and outside of our cooperative.”
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”true” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]”You’ll get more than you expect from it. It’s a unique opportunity to reflect on where your organization is, and where you are within it. It’ll give you the tools to make the right changes, and learn new skills that most of us only get by trial and error.” [/perfectpullquote]
Aaron and Brian particularly enjoyed coming to SBI as a team. Being there together motivated them to work on things not only during course hours, but in the evenings before and after dinner. They also found that having two different perspectives made it easier to communicate the value of the course to their colleagues at the University of Maine. “We were on the same page, exposed to the same methodology, and can now speak the same language” says Aaron.
To those interested in taking SBI, Aaron says “You’ll get more than you expect from it. It’s a unique opportunity to reflect on where your organization is, and where you are within it. It’ll give you the tools to make the right changes, and learn new skills that most of us only get by trial and error.” Brian adds, “You aren’t alone! We are all facing similar challenges, and at SBI you can work with a bigger group going through those problems and work with a professional staff that are trained in how to get you the tools that you can use.” Both of them highly recommend SBI and have encouraged fellow colleagues at the University of Maine as well as elsewhere to attend, particularly if it can be done as a team.
Tom Arsuffi has been Director of the Llano River Field Station (LRFS) since 2005. Under his leadership, this Texas Tech outpost in Junction, Texas has grown into a full-fledged field station supporting an impressive array of research, education, and engagement programs. In 2015, Tom took part in the ESA course in Sustaining Biological Infrastructure (SBI) to hone the business and planning skills needed to maintain the field station and support the watersheds and people of the Hill Country region.
[perfectpullquote align=”right” size=”22″]”Even though I had learned a lot …on the fly, I thought I needed more training to do a better job as a field station director.” [/perfectpullquote]
The land that makes up the Llano River Field Station has been held by Texas Tech since the 1970s, but it hasn’t always been a field station. When the university decided to use the space to develop more programs, Tom jumped at the opportunity to apply, and help grow this university outpost into a functioning field station.
Thirteen years later, LRFS is that, and more.
“We do everything field stations do,” Tom explains. That includes supporting ongoing research on the hydrology and ecology of the Llano River and surrounding areas, as well as providing courses for undergraduate and graduate students and facilities for visiting researchers.
But LRFS also runs an array of programs that serve populations beyond research scientists. Highlights of these programs include a K-12 Outdoor School, where students from Texas mega-cities are immersed in the STEM and nature of the Hill Country to combat the spread of Nature Deficit Disorder, and the development of the Upper Llano River Watershed Protection Plan, in partnership with multiple stakeholder groups.
“Engagement is something I always thought was really important as a mission for the field station,” says Tom. “I thought it was really critical that the research we do has applied applications. That it’s meaningful to the public, the ranchers, the locals, the agencies, and so forth.”
Tom’s experience in ecological research prepared him well to manage the research and teaching aspects of this work. But engagement with a diversity of stakeholders requires more than the skills that are typically taught in graduate school. That’s where the ESA Sustaining Biological Infrastructure (SBI) course came in. SBI is a three-day course that trains scientists in the strategic planning, finance, and communication skills needed to sustain long-term projects.
“When I looked at SBI, I saw elements of development, of business plans, of effective science communication to lay people,” Tom says. “Even though I had learned a lot of those things on the fly, I thought to myself I needed more training to do a better job as a field station director.”
So in June 2015, Tom headed to Washington D.C. to take part in SBI. There, he spent three days working with expert faculty and a cohort of peers to develop these science-supporting techniques.
“One of the benefits of SBI is there’s a lot of hands-on types of learning. There are good speakers, there are good presentations, the workbook is fantastic—and you actually get to practice some of the skills,” Tom explains.
With other course participants, he developed a value proposition for the field station, brainstormed a diverse array of potential funding sources, and got feedback on a mock pitch to funding agencies.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” size=”22″]”One of the benefits of SBI is there’s a lot of hands-on types of learning. There are good speakers, there are good presentations, the workbook is fantastic—and you actually get to practice some of the skills.” [/perfectpullquote]
And he brought these lessons home with him, focusing especially on developing proposals for foundations, the “untapped resources” for research funding.
That work proved successful. Pitching to different state agencies and foundations, Tom was able to link the field station to a diverse array of funding sources and partners. For example, LRFS worked with the Texas A&M University Water Resources Institute to gain EPA funding for an Upper Llano Watershed Protection Plan aimed at keeping the watershed healthy. The field station is also helping in the organization of the Hill Country Conservation Network, which brings together 160 local conservation groups to coordinate, maximize and assess efforts. Currently, he’s developing a collaboration with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to link Llano River Field Station to other pockets of protected land in the watershed.
This diverse engagement has been recognized through a series of awards. Recent triumphs include receiving the Kellogg Foundation Exemplary Project Award, the Universities Council on Water Resources Public Service and Education Award and the Texas Tech University Presidential Award for Engaged Scholarship.
Tom has lots of ideas about how to continue to understand and extend the field station’s role for the lives of local Texans. Today, he employs techniques like social network analysis, analyzing the LRFS position to answer the question, “how do we fit into a larger constellation of organizations?”
Because that, Tom says, is at the center of taking on today’s environmental problems. “Back when I was much younger, and there were environmental issues, you could address and solve those problems typically as an individual or a single agency—they weren’t that tough.”
Today’s problems are more complicated, and wrapped up with ever-growing populations and political division.
Tom’s advice for the situation is clear: “You can’t solve these problems by yourself, so one of the things you’d better be thinking about doing is getting to know the people and the agencies which align with or are adjacent to your area of expertise, so you can build these coalitions to solve complex issues.”
What does it take to build those coalitions?
“This is where the trust and communication comes in,” Tom says. “This is where it comes back to science communication, and that’s what the SBI is all about.”
Tom’s work at the Llano River Field Station is highlighted in this year’s SBI course as a case study, so other participants have the chance to learn from his success. To learn more about this year’s SBI course offerings, click here. Registration for our June course closes April 20th!
Brought to you by the Ecological Society of America