Note: Be ready to give a quality occupational therapy elevator speech during any upcoming OT school interviews you have! It’s a common question, and one you should definitely be prepared to answer!
Whether you like it or not, occupational therapy is a profession that currently – and I hope to be one of the profession’s movers and shakers that will change this in a few years!! – requires some sort of explanation to most laypersons because they don’t actually know what it is. This presents a challenge for multiple reasons:
- You begin to fear attending social events because inevitably you’ll have to explain just what exactly it is that you’re in school for
- You’re tired of virtually every person to whom you mention the term “occupational therapy” just nodding and pretending they’ve heard of it
- Everyone thinks you either just help kids with their handwriting or just provide reachers to elderly people
On the very first day of OT school, we had to write a one minute “elevator speech” to describe our profession to a person we might encounter in passing. It seems like a simple enough exercise, but trying to cram all of the important, wonderful, and relevant things about occupational therapy into a one-minute blurb is almost impossible – just try it!
It was a difficult exercise, and after we shared some of our speeches with the class things got even more confusing. Should you mention OT’s role in mental health? What about the work occupational therapists do in specialty areas like hand therapy? How does one explain that it’s not “just like PT, but for your upper body?”
Whether I’ve been at more formal events like Hill Day or casual family get-togethers, I’ve been asked to explain just what it is that I’m going to do when I get out of school. And the only thing that remains the same each time I’m asked is that the answer I give is different! Having a basic elevator speech prepared is a great idea because not only can you provide a quick response in a situation where you only have a short time to educate somebody about what you do, but it is also a great way to elevate a listener’s understanding of the profession!
(Hence the term ELEVATOR speech! Not really. But that is genius, right? :D)
The good thing about an elevator speech is that it can change as your situation, experience, or audience changes, and that it is never supposed to be a static statement. It shouldn’t be a boring, memorized chunk of words that you just whip out in all of its stale, unaltered glory from your days in OT school (or your days spent taking prerequisites for or applying to OT school). Nor should it be a lengthy political manifesto on all of the reasons why physical therapy is a totally different profession that should never be confused for your own…
Rather, an elevator speech should be an opportunity to help increase a listener’s understanding of this valuable, unique, and exciting profession – an opportunity that you don’t want to miss out on for lack of anything good to say!
If you find yourself:
- Constantly correcting a well-meaning family member’s erroneous definition of OT
- Worrying about what you’ll say during your OT school interview when they inevitably ask you how you describe OT to somebody who doesn’t know what it is
- Planning what you’ll say after you’re admitted to a program and somebody asks what you’re studying
- Just plain frustrated with your inability to concisely describe OT…
…then you can use these tips to help solidify your speech!
Occupational Therapy Elevator Speech Tips
- Know your audience. If you read my previous post about explaining OT to an elementary-schooler, you’ll know just how challenging it can be to explain OT to children – much less adults. Be sure that what you’re describing in your speech can be understood by the person you’re talking to. This leads me to my next point…
- Use simple vocabulary. Although being “holistic” and “client-centered” are foundations of occupational therapy practice, these might not be the best words to introduce the profession with. Explain OT using simpler, more common and more easily-understood words when possible.
- Define the term “occupation.” Often a person misunderstands what occupational therapy is because they assume that the word “occupation” refers solely to a person’s job. While this is one of the word’s definitions, explaining that an occupation is simply anything that a person does during the day can help clear things up from the start.
- Describe where OTs work. Another common misconception of the profession is that OTs only work in schools or in nursing homes. During your speech, list a few of the other places where OTs work (home health, hospitals, mental health facilities, etc.) to help expand your listener’s understanding of occupational therapy.
- Describe our clientele. OTs work with people across the lifespan, and often when people are familiar with occupational therapy, it’s because they have known a person who received it. This person could be a grandparent, younger sibling, or family member, but people tend to focus in on whatever age group they saw OT being provided to as the primary age group with which OTs work. Make sure you note that occupational therapists work with people throughout the life span, from birth to death!
- Make it personal. In a longer conversation, talk about how OT could help your listener. People love to talk about themselves, and having them consider what an OT could do for them can help them understand the profession a little more. For example, instead of saying “OTs help people with disabilities access their environment,” ask your listener about their daily routine. Then describe how an OT might help them if their routine was interrupted: “You said you like to cook. If you were in an accident and had to use a wheelchair, an occupational therapist could help you re-learn how to do things like grocery shopping, preparing food, and accessing your fridge and cabinets in your new situation.”
- Provide examples. Instead of just saying, “Occupational therapists help people with disabilities do what they want to do,” say something like “An occupational therapist might help a recent amputee learn how to use a prosthetic hand, and then help him return to doing things like driving, dressing himself, and playing golf that he did before he got injured. We help people do the things that they want and need to do in everyday life!”
- Describe our value. Occupational therapy is unique, but saying that isn’t enough. Make an effort to have your listener understand that occupational therapists help find ways to allow people to engage in activities that they “want and need to do” even when their physical or other circumstances make this challenging. Again, use their life and occupations as an example or jumping off point to explain more about how occupational therapists help their clients.
Despite the fact that I’ve included all kinds of information about what you should include in your elevator speech, don’t feel like you have to say it all! The fact is that sometimes all you get is a fleeting chance to elevate a listener’s understanding of occupational therapy. Use your time wisely by tailoring your speech to his or her level of understanding, making it relevant to his or her life, and briefly describing the variety of populations and practice settings in which OTs work.
For inspiration, here is the current working draft of my occupational therapy elevator speech:
Occupational therapy is a healthcare profession, and occupational therapists help people who are living with a disability or recovering from injury regain their independence and do whatever it is that is important to them. Occupations are basically anything that you do during the day between waking up and going to bed, from bathing and dressing yourself to things like cooking or hanging with friends. Occupational therapists work with people throughout the life span, from infants to the elderly, and we practice in many places, such as schools, hospitals, outpatient clinics, rehab centers, and psychiatric hospitals.
[After my listener is blown away by this baller definition of OT, I ask “What is one of your occupations? What do you do during the day?” and let the conversation flow from there.]
It’s not perfect, and it’s not all-inclusive, but it is a work in progress!
OT Elevator Speech Resources
The following are links to several blog posts, articles, and online resources to help you get started on your speech and provide a little inspiration as you continue to develop it!
Danceability Fun: This post makes a pretty good outline for what a good speech should include! It does get technical at some parts (consider the audience!) but there is still a lot of good information.
OT in a Nutshell: This site is a pretty cool collection of OT elevator speeches used by practitioners in a wide variety of settings who work with people of many different client populations.
AOTA Checking the Pulse Blog: Stephanie Yamkovenko from AOTA wrote a blog post that contains links to several resources and some useful “explaining occupational therapy” tips. The comments are also helpful!
OT Notes: Cheryl over at OT Notes makes a great point about how an elevator speech changes as a practitioner moves between different practice areas.
AOTA Conference Keynote 2014: At the 2014 AOTA Annual Conference, three wounded warriors gave the keynote speech and described what occupational therapy did for them and meant to them. I was there, and it was a truly uplifting and incredibly inspiring discussion about the true meaning and value of our profession.
ABC Therapeutics: Aaaaaaaand just because I think it’s important to include a diverse array of perspectives on the profession whenever possible, I’m including this link to a post on Chris Alterio’s blog about why being in a profession that still requires an elevator speech decades after its founding isn’t the greatest thing in the world.