Pitching Science or Technology Reporters as a Scientist? Hold the Phone: Here’s an Elucidation on Words to Avoid

Yeah. You guessed it. Avoid the word which appears 58,000+ times in the storied history of the journal Nature. It’s still in fevered use today, appearing more than 27,000 times in press releases, published papers, and articles in just the last twelve months. 

Please avoid “elucidate,” in all its forms, especially when speaking to lay people, pitching journalists on a cordless phone from the 1980’s or writing press releases. Because many reporters already have a well-founded belief that you might look like someone from the 1980’s pitching, and you need to prove them wrong. Even more on why in a bit.

The use of the Ivy League synonym for “explanation” explains a fundamental truth and horror about the perils of science and technology communications. The cerebral heavy-weights publishing in peer-reviewed journals push the frontier of not just science itself, but also the frontier of human understanding. 

So, why avoid ‘elucidate’ and ‘novelty’ and a few other inside-science words? Well, because it tips your hand and violates the first rule of communications: know your audience. A journalist is the last person to try to impress with vocabulary. They don’t care. Impress them by tailoring your content and pitch to be most relevant to them, demonstrate the impact of your work, and responding quickly, with concise answers, to their emails. 

As a former journalist, niche vocabulary and jargon in pitches is honestly bothersome. If someone seeking news coverage cannot concisely explain the real-world significance of their own findings in common in easy-to-understand language, it’s a red flag. Journalists know if that’s the case discovering whether there’s even a story worth writing requires additional layers of research and understanding in a workday that rarely allows for that luxury. A good friend who practices medicine once said, “big word, big deal.” This hits at the critical skill set of shifting your messaging and adjusting your vocabulary to fit your audience. 

The goal in reaching out to a reporter about your research or technology is to make them care in as little time, and with as little effort, as possible. ‘Elucidating your novel discoveries’ broadcasts that you may not be able to talk the clear and concise talk required to communicate to broader audiences. (Even the New York Times writes at an eighth grade reading level.) If you’re ready to build interest in your discovery or technology, rally support, drive impact, and engage with other thought-leaders, well then you’ve all the raw materials you need. 

When it comes to sharing the impact of your work with broader media audiences, the smartest science is the science that’s communicated with the greatest clarity. “Elucidating your novel discovery” becomes, “let me tell you about my new discoveries.” 

Below are a few resources to help you learn more about science communication and to check the reading level of your text:

Now that you’ve dialed in more effective language, here’s a quick formula to use when reaching out to journalists: describe what you’ve done, and why it should matter to them. Here’s an example, “We’ve made a new discovery about gravity and we’re close to levitating a small building.” [Aside: if this is true of anyone’s research reading this, we’re very happy to represent you in a public relations capacity.] 

Because, even if you have to strategically simplify your academic vocabulary, not leveraging specific niche words will be worth the reporter’s response like this, “I’d like to learn more and write a story on this.” 

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