Final Word

Discovering the UB ‘elevator speech’

By Marsha S. Henderson, BA ’73, UB Vice President for External Affairs

In the world of banking, which was my domain for 34 years before I returned to my alma mater last September to take on an exciting new challenge, it’s often said that employees should be able to deliver a “30-second elevator speech” describing their jobs in the context of the organization and its goals.

Elevator Buttons

Looking at the goals of the University at Buffalo and condensing them into a 30-second summary is a daunting task and something that I have been asked to do for this column.

With so little time to make my points (and eager to give an accurate picture of a complex institution), how can I best craft an effective message that will succeed during the quick elevator trip from the ground floor to the fifth floor of Capen Hall?

First, I’d need to spend some time thinking about the University at Buffalo, especially how it may not be well understood by the public. It’s my impression that the practical person on the street thinks of us as educating his or her son or daughter to get that four-year degree. I think it’s often misunderstood how a major research university functions on a day-to-day basis, or how paramount research can be to the life of the larger community. Certainly, this connection was unclear to me before I arrived here.

I knew we had graduate programs and I knew they were important, but I didn’t understand the focus of the university and how different it is from that of a four-year college. Likewise, I think many people have not been exposed to research, unless they happen to have a family member involved in some manner. Without this kind of direct association, they may not realize that research is a benefit right here in Western New York, a benefit also accruing to citizens across the state, country and world.

In an ideal “pitch,” I also want my audience to understand that UB is integrated into the very fabric of our community. UB’s threads run deep in the health-care “weave” of this community, for example. They also run deep in the social work profession, the arts, and the creative, legal, medical, dental and pharmacy professions—the list is endless.

Another rhetorical distinction to be made concerns the benefits of a research-intensive experience for our students. Because of UB’s breadth and depth of programs, students actually share in the creation of knowledge. At the same time, our alumni are a huge part of this intellectual fabric. Because our alumni are located across New York State, the country and the world, it is hoped their presence will foster understanding, building bridges to Buffalo from China, Japan and Singapore, to name only a few faraway spots where UB graduates reside.

I recognize that to find a receptive audience, the elevator speech must acknowledge frankly the challenges we face. Our plans at UB at some point translate into financial resources.We need to be able to articulate to others the need for that support, emphasizing that we will put these resources to use in the best possible way.Moreover, we hope our alumni will want to financially support the university for the difference that it has made in their lives.We hope, too, that they will take the time to come and help us as a volunteer, in advocacy, in future campaigns, or help to host when we’re in their cities for the UB “On the Road” program, or similar initiatives.

So my speech is almost defined as I head for the elevator: “At UB, we develop knowledge through research to make discoveries that will benefit and change the world.”

Marsha S. Henderson, BA ’73

This statement can be uttered in 30 seconds, but it’s still not complete. As part of this exercise, we need to figure out a collective UB voice—what is this voice that we all speak with when we’re part of the University at Buffalo? Of course, faculty, staff, students and alumni don’t need to be saying the same thing. But it is important directionally that we understand the university and are able to share that voice, or message, with others. In the days ahead, it will be critical for me to listen to these different viewpoints as we create a common UB voice.

Indeed, many voices and viewpoints are part of my 30- second address that I’m still mulling over as I hit the elevator button and wait. Once inside, maybe I’ll press “hold” to keep their attention for just a few seconds longer.

Marsha S. Henderson, BA ’73, was KeyBank Western New York District president from 1998 to 2005 and previously held other key banking posts in the region. She is a former chair of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership board of directors and also served on the UB Foundation board, where she was treasurer of the board of trustees.