How to pitch

What is a pitch, anyway?

A pitch is marketing for your story. It’s also the sale of your story to someone who might pay you for it, publish it, or fund a larger project.

The goal of your pitch is to give the editor a clear idea about three things: 

  1. The central thesis you propose to make.
  2. The data, research, or evidence you are using to support this thesis, and how, where and when you will get it.
  3. Why they should be excited about saying “yes” to your pitch. This includes why you are the best person to pitch this project.

One of the hardest things we’ve found in training STEM researchers to create strong science story pitches is that while researchers are naturally excited about their life’s work, the purpose of a pitch is to give the kind of context that frames your story and the science in such a way that it becomes relevant to your audience. In order to create a strong pitch, you need to recognize that not everyone is as excited about your field of expertise because they don’t have the background to contextualize it. You might know why research or a story is relevant to the world, to patients, to the environment or to any number of contexts, but most people don’t! Your goal is to get people excited and make them curious.

Honing your pitching skills is important not only for getting your work published or funded, but because it makes you a better and more empathetic communicator. It reinforces bi-directional communication and forces you to engage with the friction of reframing a narrative for different audiences. Learning how to pitch well is a skill that requires a lot of failure: so don’t worry about how long it takes you, just keep trying! 

How to pitch Massive, how to pitch the world.

When you are trying to ‘sell’ someone on your story, recognizing who you’re pitching to – who your audience is – is key. Without understanding who you’re pitching, your pitch will fall on deaf ears. Before you start, here's some questions you should know how to answer:

  1. Who is reading your pitch? Is it someone who knows who you are? Is a ‘cold’ pitch to a total stranger or an anonymous email at a publication? Editors are different than funding bodies, who may be specifically looking for larger scale pitches or pitches that cover certain specific criteria.
  2. How do you make your pitch stand out amongst many other pitches about the same research, the same story, or a deluge of other pitches about related content? Make sure you talk about why you’re special, why you have special expertise, and what kind of work you’ve done in the past. Selling yourself is a part of selling your story
  3. Who are the primary readers of the publication you’re pitching to? Recognize that you might have to re-write or reframe your pitch for different publications who have strikingly different audiences. This is also platform and format dependent: pitching a Snapchat Discover mini-video series for the New York Times will sound very different than a pitch for a written op-ed to Nautilus magazine. You will likely have to do some research to fully understand how to best frame your pitch for specific outlets’ audiences.
  4. What are important details of your pitch, summarized? Don’t forget to include any relevant information – like the format (video, article, illustration), the length/duration, or the possible delivery date – as long as it doesn't overburden the pitch with extraneous information.

For some other perspectives on pitching, read these tips from NPR and Poynter, have a look at some wonderful pitches from This American Life, and read this great thread by writer Ann Friedman that includes media guidelines on pitching from other publications and editors.


1. What is the main point of the story that you want to write?
Deforestation in South America, Africa, and Asia fells different trees, stems from different land-use practices, and proceeds at different rates. But a new study found that forests on each continent are surprisingly similar when you count the number and size of individual forest patches. It turns out, that pattern corresponds exactly what percolation theory, a mathematical theorem that which has been found to apply to everything from earthquake propagation to forest fires to epidemiology, predicts. Critically, percolation theory includes a quantifiable “tipping point,” and the study demonstrates that global forests are approaching that point.

2. What kind of research will you be drawing upon to bolster your argument? How will you use it?
In this article, I’ll use the forest study as the hook and before introducing percolation theory, and then return to how this theory is applied to forests and what it means for potential runaway deforestation. I’ll be drawing on papers that provide background and broad examples of percolation theory.

3. Why are you the right person to write this story?
My background is in microbial ecology, and oddly enough (or not, since this theory is “universal”) many of the same ecological concepts that I have written on and spoken about to broad scientific audiences apply. I’m particularly interested in this story because I love writing about large-scale environmental issues surrounding forests - e.g. an article on wildfires I wrote for Massive last fall.

Final piece 

1. What is the main point of the story that you want to write?
In this personal essay/op-ed I wish to illustrate that we shouldn’t think of microbes as either good guys or bad guys in the context of my favorite organism (i.e. what I studied in grad school), Helicobacter pylori. Popular media has perpetuated the categorization of microbes as good or bad guys. A “we must kill all bacteria” attitude has prevailed in a society full of antibacterial soap, wipes, clothes, and pretty much everything. Yet, in recent years, an emphasis on “good bacteria” has cropped up with probiotic this and that and overhype of microbiome research. What about the middle ground? As Ed Yong explains in his book I Contain Multitudes, microbes are neither good nor bad; they just exist and sometimes we benefit each other and sometimes we don’t.

2. What kind of research will you be drawing upon to bolster your argument? How will you use it?
I think Helicobacter pylori is a great organism that blurs the line between good and bad. H. pylori is best known for causing stomach ulcers and gastritis. Yet 50% of the world population carries H. plylori in their stomach, but only ~10% of infected individuals develop disease. In other studies, the presence or absence of H. pylori in the stomach has been correlated positively and negatively with other diseases. Some microbiologists also see H. pylori as part of the human microbiome, having co-evolved with us for the past 60,000 years. H. pylori is a clear example of a bacterium that is neither good or bad.

3. Why are you the right person to write this story?
I studied this organism in grad school and totally fell in love with it.

Final piece

Last updated April 2, 2018