Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Elevator Talk? Not Yet, But I'm Working On It

                I remember the first time I heard the term “elevator talk.” It was several years ago, during a board meeting. For a few minutes I was flummoxed. Once I grasped what is meant by the term, I grew inwardly indignant. Even, I have to admit, rather self-righteous. How, I recall thinking, could one deem it possible to reduce something as vital and complex as education to an elevator talk? Why would one even want to?
                The concept still grates in certain ways, but I have become more realistic and practical about the idea. I guess I even have a bit of fascination with certain aspects of the idea: the psychology it involves, the confines it presents, the linguistic precision it demands. Similar to my ongoing investigation of metrics, I’ve toyed with a variety of versions. I mix and match elements depending on the audience. It’s been kind of fun.
                Now, though, I’m struggling with the idea. Why? Because as part of my annual review, my board has challenged me to come up with a single elevator talk that pitches my vision for the school.
                I’m glad they have. I’ve been talking about it, but haven’t completed that task for reasons that will become clear later in this post. Also, while I have introduced many ideas and started new programs, the unifying motif sometimes can become lost or assumed on my part.
                Completing this has been one of my primary tasks for the past six weeks, and I still don’t feel good about my progress. I have loads of mind maps on giant sheets of paper and on my iPad; I have dozens of aborted sentences and drafts. I’ve studied traditional models, and I’ve considered the six alternatives that Daniel Pink puts forth in To Sell is Human. I’ve “finished” three final pieces…and promptly trashed them.
                Why is this so hard? Well, it simply is. It has to unify multiple elements of an intricate enterprise, much of which involves amorphous elements and long-term, intangible outcomes. Plus it has to do so in a way that enchants and cajoles and convinces. It has to be created with words, which have the paradoxical trait of being terribly limited and profoundly loaded.
                Then add in another fact, one which serves as a reminder about education. I’m thinking about this too much, and I’m striving to find just the right answer. This wonderful two-minute video captures how that can stifle creativity:

In a way, I’ve approached this like a student might approach a typical school assignment. To some degree, I’m worried too much about the product and, yes, the grade.
                How do I shift from this mindset? More easily said than done, although I know exactly what needs to happen. I have to move from focusing on the external and allow for my internal to take over. It means stressing what I want to say because of what I believe and what is right for children and for St. John’s—not what I think someone may want to hear. Like an athlete in a match, I have to control what I can.
                I trust that my upcoming vacation will help me make that transition. I should be able to clear my head somewhat, perhaps to the point that I experience one of those magical moments of clarity. That “Aha!” moment I so often experience when working on a big project. Then I will adjust and tweak until I have something that I can use going forward not just because it does the job, but because I truly believe it. I want to be like Elisha Otis, who was so sure about his invention—the elevator brake—that in a demonstration he cut the rope to show the brakes would save him.
               Of course, I’ll plan for my elevator talk to occur in a really tall building. And there will be times that I reach for the emergency stop switch because I want to share so much.


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