How to Write Op-Eds That Change the Conversation

A well-placed op-ed can help you call attention to an important issue or change minds about a controversial topic.

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The explosive op-ed written by a senior member of the Trump administration that was published this week in The New York Times is an extreme example.

But op-eds can also be incredibly useful for nonprofits and companies that are looking to inspire action in local and national markets.

Op-eds explained

Unlike reported news stories, op-eds are opinion pieces written by those who aren’t on the staff of a newspaper, magazine or website. They offer outside voices the opportunity to express opinions and share ideas in their own words.

Traditionally, they appear opposite the editorial page (hence the name, op-ed), which is where the newspaper’s editorial board expresses its opinion on important issues.

Why op-eds matter

While newspapers don’t quite carry the same influence they once did, op-eds can nonetheless be valuable tools for those looking to raise awareness about a problem or issue.

In fact, one could argue that op-eds have more influence than ever.

That’s because a published op-ed not only appears in the newspaper, it also appears online, which gives you the opportunity to point to it on your own site, in blog posts, and through social media.

But, as is the case with pitching stories, it’s a challenge to get news outlets to run your opinion piece.

Newspapers and other outlets only have the resources and space to run a limited number of op-eds. As result, competition for these pieces can be fierce.

How can you get your opinion published?

We've helped a number of organizations and individuals write and place high-impact op-eds -- and we've learned a few tricks along the way to maximize our odds of getting these pieces published.

Download this free e-book to learn our 5-step process for writing and placing op-eds that change minds and inspire action.

Crack the Code to Effective Writing: 5 Tips for Creating Nut Graphs

 Flickr Creative Commons photo by  Svetlana P .

Flickr Creative Commons photo by Svetlana P.

When it’s time to sit down and start writing, some writers begin by creating an outline or by trying to craft a compelling opening.

I start with the nut graph.

If you were trained as a journalist or have ever worked in a newsroom, you're probably already familiar with the term nut graph, which refers to the paragraph in a news story that tells readers why they are reading the story.

Nut graphs often appear early in the story -- typically in the second or third paragraph -- and set the context for what follows. They can be full paragraphs, short sentences, or something in between. But no matter the length, a good nut graph offers a clear roadmap to what makes the story important.

I’ve found that a strong nut graph isn’t just useful for writing news stories. It’s an element that paves the way for all effective writing. If you’re writing a white paper, case study, news release, blog post, video script, or e-mail marketing message, a nut graph is the key that unlocks your entire narrative.

If you can quickly and concisely identify why your piece is important, you stand a better chance of convincing the reader why it matters.

This is true whether you’re trying to pitch a story to a reporter, inspire a reader to make a donation to your nonprofit, or convince a potential customer to buy your product.

Whatever you’re writing, it’s important to explain -- very clearly and prominently -- why the piece is important.

But how do you figure that out?

Here are the five questions you should ask yourself before you write that will help you identify and frame your nut graph:

What’s different?

The fact that you are announcing a new CEO isn't different. Every organization hires a new leader from time to time.

But the person you are hiring usually brings something different to the table. Perhaps she is the first woman to ever lead an arts organization in your city, or the first graduate of your program to lead it.

If you can identify something different that might help your announcement stand out, your nut graph becomes fairly easy. Here's an example:

"Jones, who is the organization's 17th director, becomes the first woman to lead a major arts organization in Gotham City."

Is this part of a larger trend?

Let's say you are having a hard time identifying what's different. In that case, maybe you can focus on how it connects to a larger trend.

By spotting and calling out a trend in your nut graph, you're helping readers understand how your piece fits into a larger narrative or provides insight into something that’s happening around them.

Example: "The new program is part of a growing trend among nonprofits: partnering with local community foundations to track and measure a city's progress toward improving adult literacy rates. Similar programs in cities like Detroit and Pittsburgh are already showing great promise in addressing this important issue."

What’s the impact?

If you can identify how your subject will have an impact on the community it serves or a problem you're trying to solve, you have a ready-made news hook (and a nut graph that almost writes itself).

Example: "With this grant from Vandelay Industries, the Kramer Center will be able to provide housing assistance to 300 families that otherwise would not be able to afford rents in the neighborhood.”

Is it timely?

Perhaps you are writing about a topic that helps address an issue that is particularly timely or connects to a larger event in the news. Identifying a connection to something current can help give you the hook you need for your nut graph.

Example: "At a time when many local workers have lost their jobs due to the recent recession, this new program offers career training and placement services that are otherwise difficult to afford."

Can someone learn from it?

All of us are looking for information that can help us navigate our day to day lives. If your piece can offer practical advice that can help people be more effective in their jobs, with their finances, or with their relationships, it’s helpful to spotlight this information up front.

Example: "The new partnership is the result of months of deliberate planning and negotiations and provides a roadmap for other organizations that are looking to manage their costs responsibly."

What’s your best example of a nut graph? Share it in the comments below and we’ll spotlight the best nut graphs in a future edition of our newsletter.

How to Plan a Media Tour

 Flickr Creative Commons photo by  Mark Vletter

Flickr Creative Commons photo by Mark Vletter

If you're like most nonprofit communicators, your go-to move is to send a press release to the media whenever your organization announces something new.

But if you have been disappointed with the results of your releases, it might be time to try a different approach: getting your top leader out of the office and in front of the journalists you're counting on to tell your story.

In recent months, I've been setting up media tours for nonprofits and foundations in which an executive or expert within the organization sets aside a day or two to meet informally with key reporters and editors -- and these tours have generated some terrific results.

While it requires an investment of time -- and some serious preparation -- a media tour can be an incredibly valuable exercise for organizations that are looking to build a lasting media presence. A media tour can be especially helpful when your organization is looking to:

  • introduce a new leader who is looking to articulate his or her vision for your organization to the public
  • launch a significant new initiative
  • bolster the reputation of a thought leader within your organization
  • release a new strategic plan
  • break into a new media market
  • target a national audience

At a time when most outreach to news outlets occurs virtually, there's real value in finding opportunities to meet in person. By having your leaders sit across the table from a reporter or editor, you're able to demonstrate their expertise, build rapport, show their passion for your organization's work, and (perhaps most importantly) learn more about what the journalist is working on and cares about.

In turn, you are likely to develop a relationship that can lead to ongoing opportunities to tell your story and show your expertise. We've found that even one positive face-to-face meeting with a journalist can put you top of mind whenever that journalist is looking for sources for future stories.

You become a go-to source that they know and trust.

But before you decide to clear your executive director's schedule for a day of press meetings, keep in mind that successful media tours require quite a bit of planning, preparation, and persistence.

Here are a few things to keep in mind as you consider setting up a tour:

Be Selective -- Before you begin, have a goal in mind. If you're launching a new program, for instance, identify the key audiences you need to reach for your program to succeed and then take time to identify a handful of reporters and editors who work at outlets that reach those audiences.

Set a Realistic Timeline -- Your organization's leaders are busy people -- and so are journalists. To get on their schedules (and to ensure that you're not wasting your own time), begin the process of setting up your tour at least 3-4 weeks ahead of time. This will allow you to get on journalists' calendars before they fill up, identify potential conflicts, and work through your target list in order of priority. This also leaves enough time in the process to research the journalists you're meeting with, develop briefing materials (more on this shortly!), and prepare for the meetings.

Leave White Space -- If you're setting up one day of media meetings as part of your tour, you'll likely feel the urge to pack the day with as many meetings as possible. But a packed schedule can lead to rushed meetings, late appearances, and stress. A realistic tour more likely includes a pair of morning meetings, a break for lunch, and a pair of afternoon meetings -- and 30 minutes to an hour of unscheduled time between each meeting to accommodate travel time and conversations that run long.

Do Your Homework -- Conduct as much research about each journalist you're meeting with as you can. Read their bios. Study their recent coverage online. Follow them on Twitter and other social networks. This will help you understand what they care about and identify ways in which you can help them moving forward.

Prepare a Briefing -- Each time we set up an in-person meeting between a source and a reporter, we create a written briefing that includes goals, key talking points, background about the reporter and his or her work, and logistical details about the meeting itself (where it will take place, whether it's on or off the record, how long the meeting is scheduled for, etc.). This material helps the source prepare for the conversation -- and it's especially important for a source who is preparing for multiple meetings on the same day.

Be Flexible -- The news business can be unpredictable. When news breaks, a reporter might have to cancel or reschedule a meeting at the last minute -- or, in some cases, have another reporter fill in if he or she can't be there. We recommend checking in a week ahead and then a day ahead of your scheduled meeting to be sure nothing has changed -- and to be prepared for the unlikely (but still real) possibility of a last-minute cancellation. Make sure you prepare your source for that possibility as well. And, if you do have a cancellation, use it as an opportunity to pivot and either set up a future meeting or call or to pitch a story.

Anticipate the Unexpected -- Plan to join your leader for the tour -- and be ready for anything. We recommend having a plan set up for transportation (either serving as the driver yourself or coordinating to make sure you have someone who can get you from point A to point B on time) -- and making sure you have a stealth supply of snacks, an umbrella, a stain stick, and more so that you can deal with whatever curve balls are thrown at you. You should also have some leave behind materials that you can give to the reporters and editors who meet with you.

Take Notes -- While your leader is fielding questions and sharing his or her perspectives, make sure you're there to document and take notes. Pay special attention to unanswered questions, follow-up items, and opportunities for future coverage.

Follow Up -- Once your day is over, follow up directly with each media member to thank them for their time, provide promised information, and coordinate next steps.

As you can see, a media tour isn't a small lift. But it will likely provide you with relationships and sustained coverage that you can't get through press releases.

The one word that will make you a great interviewer

 Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

Want to improve your interviewing skills?

Then start asking this: Why?

It’s really that simple. Why has been my go-to ‘question’ for years to get the most out of interviews, whether it’s in the role as a journalist or interviewing someone for a corporate or nonprofit blog, bylined article, video, or op-ed.

Here are five ways this one word can do some heavy lifting for you. 

1. It turns an interview into a conversation: Interviews can sometimes be stressful and stilted, particularly with someone who isn’t often interviewed. Following up on a question by asking a range of 'why' questions can change that.  Why is this important? Why should people care about this? Why are you so passionate about this work? Those questions help the person being interviewed forget they are being interviewed--and start sharing some fresh thinking. 

2. It unlocks the good stuff: I’ve been present at interviews when the interviewer never diverts from a list of pre-prepared questions–rote questions that get rote, jargon-drenched answers. The interview ends with so much potential perspective and color left unsaid, followed by a story that no one wants to read much less write. Even if you have set questions, strategically digging deeper with why questions can lead to some great stuff. And I guarantee that the best, most authentic quotes you get will come from the follow-up why questions. 

3. It can reveal an ah-ha moment:  On more than one occasion, I’ve had an interviewee respond to a why question, with, ‘You know, I’ve never really thought about that.’ What follows is usually some golden material as that person talks through an issue in a way her or she never has before. Often experts and leaders are so consumed by their work that they don’t take time to step back and really consider all its nuances and value. A why question can change that.

4. It can get you out of a jam: There are times in the midst of an interview that things can get awkward, or a momentary distraction causes you to lose your train of thought. That’s never good, particularly if you are sitting across from a CEO or busy subject-matter expert. Turning to a why question can be a great escape valve that can reveal some great insights – and get the conversation back on track. 

5. It helps connect to the larger why: At Turn Two we are big advocates for our clients knowing and living the larger purpose of their organizations – we like to call it their ‘why.’ Asking why questions during an interview can often help reveal the connections between a specific project or initiative and the broader purpose of the organization. Finding that alignment is key, and it rarely happens without some why questions helping it bubble to the surface. 

So, the next time you’re interviewing someone, don’t forget to ask why. It will make for a great conversation – and an even better finished product.

Scott Westcott is corporate practice leader at Turn Two Communications