Trust, Credibility, Better Op-Eds and the Voices in Your Head

We live at a time when angry, irresponsible, and even unhinged people seem to have tacit permission to speak, write and act on their impulses and emotions.   Being mad somehow makes you right with no real responsibility for your own anger, that’s somebody else’s fault.  If you’ve held a contentious public meeting, heard a talk show, or read an online newspaper story response you know this. The fact that the Tucson shooting was likely committed by a deranged mind doesn’t change the fact that most politics and public debate are broken. What’s now acceptable shouldn’t be.  There’s never been a more critical time for civility to find reasonable public solutions to tough public problems



Trust and Credibility

Public involvement and consensus require moving beyond anger and (re)building working relationships.  Good relationships are grounded in trust and credibility.  Edelman – the world’s largest public relations agency — conducts an annual global Trust Barometer survey and this year’s results are interesting.


Tips for Writing Op-Ed Articles

Joe Goldman from AmericaSpeaks assembled a really nice list of tips for writing newspaper opinion pieces recently and gave me permission to pass them on to you.    

Limit the article to 750 words.
Shorter is even better. Unfortunately, newspapers have limited space to offer, and editors generally won’t take the time to cut a long article down to size.

Make a single point — well.
You cannot solve all of the world’s problems in 750 words. Be satisfied with making a single point clearly and persuasively.

Put your main point on top.
You have no more than 10 seconds to hook a busy reader, which means you shouldn’t “clear your throat” with a witticism or historical aside. Just get to the point and convince the reader that it’s worth his or her valuable time to continue.

Tell readers why they should care.
Put yourself in the place of the busy person looking at your article. At the end of every few paragraphs, ask out loud: “So what? Who cares?” You need to answer these questions. Will your suggestions help reduce readers’ taxes? Protect them from disease? Make their children happier? Explain why. Appeals to self-interest usually are more effective than abstract punditry.

Offer specific recommendations.
An op-ed is not a news story that simply describes a situation; it is your opinion about how to improve matters. Don’t be satisfied with mere analysis.

Showing is better than discussing.
You may remember the Pentagon’s overpriced toilet seat that became a symbol of profligate federal spending. You probably don’t recall the total Pentagon budget for that year (or for that matter, for the current year). That’s because we humans remember colorful details better than dry facts. When writing an op-ed look for great examples that will bring your argument to life.

Use short sentences and paragraphs.
Look at some stories in most major newspapers, and count the number of words per sentence. You’ll probably find the sentences to be quite short. You should use the same style, relying mainly on simple declarative sentences. Cut long paragraphs into two or more shorter ones.

Don’t be afraid of the personal voice.
When it comes to op-eds, it’s good to use the personal voice whenever possible. If you are a physician, describe the plight of one of your patients. If you’ve worked with poor families in your community, tell their stories to help argue your point.

Avoid jargon.
If a technical detail is not essential to your argument, don’t use it. When in doubt, leave it out. Simple language doesn’t mean simple thinking; it means you are being considerate of readers who lack your expertise and are sitting half-awake at their breakfast table or computer screen.

Use the active voice.
Don’t write: “It is hoped that [or: One would hope that} the government will . . .” Instead, say “I hope the government will . . .” Active voice is nearly always better than passive voice. It’s easier to read, and it leaves no doubt about who is doing the hoping, recommending or other action.

Make your ending a winner.
You’re probably familiar with the importance of a strong opening paragraph, or “lead,” that hooks readers. But when writing for the op-ed page, it’s also important to summarize your argument in a strong final paragraph. That’s because many casual readers scan the headline, skim the opening column and then read only the final paragraph and byline.

Submitting a Letter
Before submitting a letter, check with your local newspaper for its guidelines (usually posted on their web site), then follow these general tips. Include your name, address, e-mail address and telephone number. Papers may need to contact you if they are considering printing your letter. Don’t worry—they won’t print your contact information. If the newspaper doesn’t call you, call the newspaper. Ask to speak to the person in charge of the “Op-Ed” section. Ask if they plan on printing your letter, and if not, see if they have any feedback for you.



Balanced Arguments are More Persuasive

When you believe you’re right and the other side is wrong the last thing you want to do is talk about their side.  But it’s the smartest thing that you can do.


Misunderstandings and Ignoring the Voices in Your Head

Technology makes communication faster and sometimes easier, but not better. Problems and misunderstandings also move faster and easier.  I find myself on conference calls on an almost daily basis, sometimes two or three a day and sometimes with a dozen people on the line.  I used to think it beat the alternative,  but sometimes I think this is a miserable way for people to interact.


Jargon is Great for your Ego but Really Bad for your Audience

After working for Fortune 50 high-tech companies and for technical government agencies I now speak several languages, of which all are some form of English.  

“People use jargon because they want to sound smart and credible when in fact they sound profoundly dim-witted and typically can’t be understood, which defeats the purpose of speaking in the first place,” says Karen Friedman. 

Thanks, Karen.  If I’d said that my jargon-laden friends might have been offended.


Great Training  

We’re planning dates and locations for the two-day Emotion, Outrage and Public Participation course in 2011 and booking in-house classes, so if you’re interested or would like to see it delivered  near you please let me know at   We’ll be in Chicago on August 23 and 24.  

We’ve also set 2011 dates for the IAP2 Certificate Course in Public Participation;

·         April 4-8 San Antonio;

·         May 2-6 Washington D.C.;

·         Mid-May Denver;

  • June 13-17 Flagstaff, Arizona;

·         July 18-22 Chicago;

·         August 1-5 St. Louis;

·         October 3-7 Santa Fe;

·         December 5-9 Washington D.C.; and

·         January 23-27, 2012 in Phoenix   


Other days will likely be added so click on for the latest information, details and registration.

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