“Big Think”

Advice from a journalist: How to jump into the conversation

KalinDeb“The goal is to transform data into information and information into insight.” — Carly Fiorina

Still wondering how to get news hooks to work for you? Well, Dr. Kali Gross, a 2015 University of Texas at Austin Public Voices Fellow, offers some insight into using the news as a way to step into the public conversation with relevance and insight.

In her latest piece about Cookie Lyon, the just-released-from-prison mother and ex-wife played by the fierce Taraji Henson on the hit TV show “Empire,” Kali uses timing and temperature (of the public conversation) to make a consistently killer argument about mass incarceration and black women. Here are her “secrets.”

  • She moved fast: Kali wrote this in 24 hours, while people were still talking about the season finale of “Empire.”
  • She finds new points of entry to a recurrent theme: the intersection of black women, violence and mass incarceration of black bodies. “Empire” is just one point of many.
  • She feels valued and at her chosen outlet of choice: The Huffington Post. She’s making the most of this by building a brand identity there by leveraging the heck out of her theme and posting there regularly.
  • Her larger theme — mass incarceration — now has a place in the public imagination thanks to the foundation of other thought-leaders, namely Michelle Alexander of “New Jim Crow” fame, so Kali’s building that out in a big way.

Kali stays true to her thematic foundation, but she also engages the elasticity of time, giving audiences what they crave (more Cookie) — and more by taking something highly entertaining, much talked about and considered fluff to some, spinning it till it’s a matter a life and death. Because it is.

Now, that’s how you enter a public conversation.

Kali Nicole Gross is a Public Voices Fellow and an associate professor and associate chair of the African and African Diaspora Studies Department at The University of Texas at Austin. Deborah Douglas is an OpEd Project senior facilitator with the Public Voices Fellowship there.


Writing Winning Headlines

What makes effective headlines?  Deborah Douglas, one of the journalist leaders of our Public Voices Fellowship at UT-Austin, shared her thoughts, in a recent missive to her fellows.

1338301e314ea8b61026d681368344ee_400x400Should you, the writer, supply a headline with your piece? Is it reasonable to expect media outlets to honor your well-crafted headline just as they do with your piece? What’s at stake when we write our own headlines?

The truth is headlines written by writers, both freelance and staff, are just suggestions. However, arresting headlines that make editors do a double-take have a greater chance of (a) getting editors to open your email pitch; (b) showing editors/producers up front you know just what it takes to connect with their audience; (c) actually being printed with the rest of your wonderful words.

Headlines are critical to reflecting the personality and tone of a publication. We’ve talked about adjusting our individual writing tones according to particular publications, well, headlines are the same way. I’ve noticed recently that Slate likes to throw down the gauntlet in many of its headlines: “There’s Only One Way to Defeat ISIS.” Or “Apply to Law School Now.” Really? Now?

upworthylogoclearThose presented by Upworthy are effective at projecting the emotional tone they seek in connecting with their audience. Consider: “Like, OMG. Let’s Go To Africa And Save People!’ Here’s Why You Shouldn’t Be That Person.” Or “I Thought We Banned Cocaine For Health Reasons. Nope. Not Even Close.” I don’t know about you, but I’d want to read those stories.

Lastly, let’s consider “Fleeced: A Look at the Terrible Life of Migrant Workers Everywhere,” the header for fellow Sienna Craig’s piece on Nepalese migrant workers. Pacific Standard Editor Nicholas Jackson used the word “terrible” to infuse the anxiety and anguish so aptly described by Sienna in her op-ed. I see quite a few “terrible” headlines these days, and they always make me want to find out why.

For tips on ‘How to Write an Upworthy Headline’, click here.

How to make an idea go viral

At the third convening of the Yale Public Voices fellowship, Katie Orenstein, Founder and CEO of the OpEd Project, shared 5 tips on how to make an idea go viral:

viral marketing

Photo from Traffic Spinners

1) Name it. Like Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie does. Ngoze’s famous TED talk, “The Danger of the Single Story,” launched a global conversation questioning our global conversation. By naming it powerfully, she brought the shock of the familiar to a longstanding problem.  Sometimes a name can bring a new idea into existence. Conversely, sometimes an idea has been waiting so long for a name that giving it one is like putting a match to a haystack.  In 1963, Betty Friedan famously named The Feminine Mystique, igniting a new wave of feminism and permanently changing the social fabric of the United States and the world.

2) Simplify. The idea must be tight and simple enough to travel across time and space with minimal distortion. Simplification is not the same thing as dumbing down–quite the contrary, according to Leonardo da Vinci, who believed that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”  Simple is also aerodynamic.

3) Create a refrainRefrain (from the Vulgar Latin refringere, “to repeat”, and later from Old French refrandre): the line(s) that are repeated in music or verse.  Cadence, rhythm, repetition are the close friends of memory and virality. Ever wonder how The Odyssey was remembered and retold by the bards, long before it was written down?

4) Tap into emotionMake your idea resonant at a heart level (not just a head level).  OpEd Project Public Voices fellow Carol Anderson’s op-ed on Ferguson and white rage in The Washington Post did just that.  It was one of the Post’s most shared op-eds of 2014.

5) Give memorable examplesShow and Tell.  Share examples that are meaningful, retell-able “nuggets” – that are descriptive, funny or poignant, easily understandable, irresistible to share, but clear enough to resist distortion across generations of tellers.

Follow @theopedproject on Twitter for more tips.

The Ladder of Abstraction

Guest post by OpEd Project Facilitator Amy Gutman.

For your writing motivation, here is an incredibly useful tool for all of us seeking to amplify our voices. It’s called The Ladder of Abstraction.

The basic idea is this:


When you embark on an oped (or other argument), start with the SPECIFIC illustrative anecdote, fact, quote or scene—that’s the bottom of the ladder—to hook your reader. Think: Concrete/singular/sensory.

The second rung on the ladder is SUMMARY:  This includes objective data and other facts that establish significance and context.  Most people have no idea how much time they spend on this rung, notes Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, who teaches writing at Harvard’s Kennedy School and is, incidentally, an OpEd Project alum. (My introduction to the Ladder came during her recent workshop on Writing About Social Justice Passions.) Pieces with too much summary tend to feel dry and (often) boring.

The third and final rung is ABSTRACT/INTERPRETIVE: This is where you bring in your own insights, analogies, metaphors—you might think of it as the value added of YOU, as you reflect on the topic.

Strong writing generally starts at the bottom of the ladder and from there moves up and down—not staying on any one rung for all too long. To learn more, here’s a helpful piece from Poynter.org on the concept.



CGPS Participants Talk Connection

Three Center for Global Policy Solutions Public Voices Greenhouse Participants share their takes on connection.

mijinAs a policy specialist, I usually think that my brain is straight and  narrow. The second convening of Public Voices Greenhouse helped me tap into  creativity that I didn’t know I had. One of our exercises was to take a news hook out of a box and tie it to a piece we had in mind. Mine was an ad for the HurryCane, “the world’s biggest coupon for the Internet’s biggest selling cane.” First, I thought it was a joke. Then my brain froze. Then I let myself open up and started to play with the headline. The result was how we really needed the world’s biggest coupon for our democracy and a call for campaign finance reform. It was so great to hear how my other colleagues used their creativity, too. Thank you, Deb and Michele!

J. Mijin Cha is Associate Director of PolicyLink. 

rAPsVfrALet’s face it. Connection is a powerful word, but it’s just not that sexy. Not when we live in a world where individuality increasingly reigns supreme and it’s always “I”, “me”, and not “we.” Given those dynamics, who could blame any one of us for glossing over the word’s significance and believing that good ideas are somehow singularly created in a vacuum of isolation? That was my mindset. But this week’s Greenhouse session changed it. Like a much needed reality check, Michele, Deborah, and my fellowship colleagues reminded me of the importance of connection and the true power of not only seeing– but seeking– the relationships between people and ideas. I finally feel connected again and, for that, I will forever be grateful. For me, knowing that you don’t stand alone is empowering.

Mitria Wilson is the Director of Legislative and Policy Advocacy at the National Community Reinvestment Coalition. 

ChanelleAt the convening last week we wrote our “hunches,” sought input, and fleshed them out into pieces. We left armed with the tools to produce writing that not only speaks in needed voices, but writing that is enriched by the input of a network of talented and thoughtful peers of color. The point: Just write already! With each session, Michele and Deb help to chip away at the fears that cause those of us who think we have something to say, but doubt that anyone wants to hear it, to silence ourselves.  So here’s to banishing fear and to speaking truth to power.

Chanelle Hardy is Senior Vice President for Policy at National Urban League and executive director of the National Urban League Washington, DC bureau. 

Op-ed writing isn’t rocket science

But if we want to increase diversity in op ed writing and thought leadership, we can learn a thing or two from America’s favourite astrophysicist.


Why do we hear from such a narrow range of voices in the world? Why are the overwhelming majority of thought leaders male, white, straight western, and socioeconomically privileged? You might not think the op ed pages have a lot to do with rocket science, but they do. In an old video that recently went viral, Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of the new series of Cosmos, and America’s Nerdiest Dreamboat (Dreamboatiest Nerd? Both) tackles the question of why there are so few women in higher maths and sciences. That question had been raised, in rather controversial fashion, by then-President of Harvard, Larry Summers, who speculated that is might have something to do with “intrinsic biological aptitude.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson tells a different story.  He can’t speak to the cultural barriers faced by women in STEM sciences (or in other forms of thought leadership, like op ed writing), but he could speak to the ones he faced as a Black man.

DeGrasse Tyson’s bottom line: “Before you start talking about genetic differences, you gotta come up with a system where there’s equal opportunity. Then we can have that conversation.” Something tells me that once we come up with a system where there’s equal opportunity, we’ll realize that we don’t need to have that conversation at all.

The Imposter Syndrome

How many of us have doubted ourselves, or our credentials, and wondered whether everyone else could see just what a fraud we are? What’s that about? It turns out that the Imposter Syndrome affects some of us more than others, as Alyssa Westring, one of our DePaul Public Voices fellows, pointed out in a recent essay for Inside Higher Education:
I began my search with the phrase “the imposter phenomenon,” a term I learned about in graduate school that still rang true. Visiting this research again, I found that Clance and Imes coined the phrase in 1978 to describe successful women who felt like “phonies” despite evidence of their intelligence and accomplishments. In the thirty years since their work, a broader body of research has emerged exploring how women attribute the causes of their success and their reactions to feedback in typically male dominated fields. There is ample evidence that from a young age, girls are taught that their success in these fields is due external factors such as hard work or luck and failures are due to ability; whereas the opposite attributions are taught to boys. These patterns of thinking often persist throughout adulthood – where even those who women who have persisted in typically male-dominated fields feel more uncertain about their ability and are more anxious about being revealed as “an imposter.” These beliefs also correspond to a greater sensitivity to the possibility of rejection and internalization of negative feedback.
For the full story on the Imposter Syndrome, read more here: Inside Higher Ed
(photo courtesy of Igor Polzenhagen)