Make an Effective Argument with Your Next Op-Ed
By Jim Baird, Senior Director
You’ve read them. You’ve written them. You probably have ideas scribbled down for a few more (me too). But do op-eds actually persuade? The simple answer is: they do.
A study by Yale professor Alexander Coppock found that op-eds had large and lasting effects among both the general public and policy experts on the issues of the day. No matter your audience’s political leanings or station in life, op-eds work to move minds.
But op-eds can only work if they are seen. Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to write and place op-eds for individuals with a long track record of accomplishments — four-star generals, leading issue experts, and even a former U.S. secretary of state. I’ve also had the opportunity to work with those just starting on their career paths — the most junior analysts or activists who have never been published. Along the way, I have picked up a thing or two about how to secure placement — and make an effective argument.
Explain why your issue matters to an outlet’s audience. An op-ed page is not a place to advertise about how great your organization is or an event you are hosting. The page is, however, a place to put forward an idea or a topical argument and, importantly, why it matters to the readership of that outlet. Approach an op-ed not to be self-promotional, but to draw attention to an overlooked issue and make the case of why that issue matters.
Approach your piece like you would a conversation at Thanksgiving. People are smart. They are also busy. In a world filled with content, your objective is to make a compelling argument that resonates. To do so, approach writing your op-ed like you might a conversation with friends and family at Thanksgiving. Your language should be accessible. Your points should be brief and straightforward — backed by hard evidence — and your argument should assume those you are speaking to may not know much at all about the issue.
Speak to the interests of the audience you are trying to persuade. When you are trying to persuade an audience, you need to appeal to them through relevant arguments. That sounds simple enough; however, it is extraordinarily difficult. Experiments have found that liberals and conservatives are both very bad at this. But speaking in terms of the values of those you are trying to persuade is essential. Do your homework — make use of polling data and assess what has worked previously with your messaging. From there, craft arguments that appeal to your target audiences’ values, beliefs, and attitudes.
For advocacy, name names. Don’t mince words or waste space — if you are trying to get a lawmaker to take a stance or an action, tell them what you want them to do, who will benefit, and why they should care. The world is noisy — naming names will markedly increase the likelihood that your piece will get published and seen by those in power you are trying to reach.
Of course, the op-ed placement process is often a bumpy one. Expect rejection. Not all your pieces will get published. That’s okay. But when you get feedback from an editor — listen. Keep an eye on the news cycle and identify a new hook, and try, try again. With persistence — and possibly help from The Hatcher Group — your piece will run. And importantly, persuading your target audience is possible.