Guest Blog Post

How to Get Comfortable Calling Yourself an Expert

Guest Post by Lex Schroeder

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It’s true that we’re all learners, we’re learning all the time (let’s hope), but it’s also true that some of us just know about some things more than others.

I know more about writing and dialogue than my engineer friends. Olympic skiiers know more about skiing than I do. I remind myself of this whenever I get uncomfortable calling myself an expert.

I first realized I was uncomfortable with the word when I took The Op-Ed Project workshop last year with 20 to 25 other hugely accomplished women, most of whom felt an aversion to the word as well.

We all introduced ourselves, spoke about our work, told each other what we wrote about or wanted to write about, and then discussed this concept of “expertise.” Almost everyone cringed at the word. Our age, career, achievements, or level of experience didn’t seem to matter. And we all did this strange thing when we introduced ourselves. We downplayed our work. So it wasn’t only that we weren’t comfortable calling ourselves experts; we weren’t even comfortable letting our work stand for itself and be good.

We all had great confidence and felt a real need to cut our confidence back the moment we displayed it. Sitting in that circle, witnessing this “2 steps forward, 1 step back effect,” it hit me: maybe I’m not comfortable with the word expert for reasons I’m not consciously aware of! Maybe I’m not an expert on what I think I know about myself (and why I like certain words and don’t like others). Then we went on to get clear about what we know (what our actual expertise is), why it matters, and how we can use that knowledge to change the world and change the world’s conversation.

Words are funny things. They mean what they mean and they mean what we want them to mean. The first 500 times I heard the word expert, I heard arrogance and a deep disinterest in learning. I felt the damage “expertise” had done in the past. For example, George W. Bush’s expertise in leadership foreign policy when he invaded Iraq! I don’t hear the word expert the same way anymore. I hear it and think confidence and clarity. Expertise, as in, “I know about this thing. I have these skills. You can count on me.”

I like this idea of taking responsibility for what I know so I can be of use. And while my initial discomfort with the word “expert” was real and is still interesting to me, it’s not as interesting as the work I seek to do in the world, the knowledge and skills I have to offer and the knowledge and skills so many other people (many of them women) have to offer. I’m interested in women using their voices more than I’m interested in asking women to be wary of the word “expertise”, effectively giving them yet one more reason to question themselves… yet another reason to be humble, humble, humble. Most of us, too many of us, seem to just really have that down.

Whether or not you have any interest in writing op-eds, you’re going to want to take The Op-Ed project training. View upcoming workshop locations and sign up here. In their own words, “We define op-ed expansively. Op-ed offers a metaphor for thought leadership, a front door into the marketplace of ideas and public conversation (and thus a strategy for change).”

Originally published in Take The Lead.

Female Journalists: “Leave My Body Out Of It”

Guest Post by Samantha McCann

The Op-Ed Project aims to expand the diversity of voices that are heard in the broader public forum, to include the best ideas, regardless of where they come from. Currently, the majority of voices that we hear on op-ed pages come largely from one slice of our society: mostly males, mostly caucasian.

Journalist Amy Wallace published an op-ed in the New York Times last week on why this might be the case. [To be clear, the Op-Ed Project did not facilitate this piece.] In the op-ed, “Life as a Female Journalist: Hot or Not?“, Wallace addresses the unique attacks and criticism faced by female journalists. Regardless of the topic on which they write, Wallace argues, women journalists find themselves consistently fending off attacks not on the merit of their ideas, but rather on their physical appearance.

Wallace gives an example of the kind of attacks she’s talking about, this one in response to an article she wrote on the anti-vaccine movement [emphasis mine]:

In online comments and over email, I was called a prostitute and the C-word…sent me an essay titled, “Paul Offit Rapes (intellectually) Amy Wallace and Wired Magazine”…implied that my subject had slipped me a date-rape drug…Photoshopped my head onto the body of a woman in a strapless dress who sat next to Dr. Offit at a festive dinner table. The main course? A human baby.

Her piece was a continuation of the discussion started by Amanda Hess, whose article “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet” addressed harassment of women online by anonymous trollers. Wallace focused more on harassment of female journalists, not by anonymous internet users, but attacks by well-established organizations. In this CNN clip, in which Brian Stelter interviews Hess and Wallace about their pieces, Wallace notes that “…When we see that these things happen with people from named organizations standing behind them, as if to say this is legitimate public discourse, this is okay, this is funny, that’s really disturbing.” (more…)

Students Offer Views of Connection and Hunches with the YNOW Program

This  is a guest blog post written by two students from our Youth Narrating Our World program.  YNOW is The OpEd Project’s thought leadership program for Chicago public high schools, made possible by funding from the McCormick Foundation.

Jessica Pope is a 15-year-old sophomore at Lindblom Math & Science Academy in Chicago.

Convening 2, themed “Connection,” was awesome. It made me look at things in life in different perspectives. One thing I enjoyed is when we spoke about the topics we had a hunch about. This was amazing because it helped us all take something that was already powerful to something that is even more meaningful and thought out.

We also interacted with each other more, which was outstanding because it helped all of us be more open about sharing ideas. After we have the last convening in January I will honestly be devastated because I have enjoyed the company of the other students who had wonderful ideas and thoughts about the way the world worked.

This convening was different from the first one because we united as one. Saturday was helpful because I am now more grounded and realize why my voice, mind, and words are important to the world. Journalism is something I will definitely be considering in the future.

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Martin Calderon is a 16-year-old junior at Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy in Chicago.

High school students from Chicago representing Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy, Walter Payton College Preparatory Academy, Lindblom Math and Science Academy, and Young Women’s Leadership Charter School met at Columbia College on Saturday, November 23rd for the second convening of The Youth Narrating Our World thought leadership program.

The YNOW program is a part of The OpEd Project funded by the McCormick Foundation and directed by Michele Weldon and Deborah Douglas. The students started off by having a quick breakfast and then coming up with definitions for hunches, and deciding which hunches they had that could develop into ideas that could be shared with the public through written opinion pieces and more.

Then they talked about the difference between topics and ideas. A topic can be a news hook and is very concrete; while an idea is transparent and can include themes and hunches affecting many members of society all over the country and even the world.

Afterwards, the students learned when to pitch their opinions to the news media at the right moment. They learned to hijack the news by using the news at current time to their advantage to state their opinion on prominent and obscure social issues.

After lunch, the students split into two groups: one group’s students were interviewed on video by Ms. Douglas and the other group led by Ms. Weldon helped each other on their drafts by sharing both confirmations and complications.

The last part of the convening focused on a writer’s pitch to an editor. The group learned to have an effective pitch by being timely, showing credibility, and expressing an unexpected point of view.

In Their Own Words: Youth Narrating Our World Launches 1st Convening in Chicago

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At the first convening of the Youth Narrating Our World greenhouse program in Chicago at McCormick Foundation headquarters, 16 students from four Chicago public high schools met to discuss, learn and engage in lively activities about the nature of credibility and the importance of voice in the larger public conversation.

The OpEd Project’s Michele Weldon and Deborah Douglas are leading the three-month mentoring program for these students from Young Women’s Leadership Academy, Lindblom Math & Science Academy, Walter Payton College Prep High School and Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep. Students participating were selected through an essay contest available to hundreds of students at the high schools. Below are two reactions from participants:

The first meeting for The OpEd Project’s Youth Narrating Our World was eye-opening.  In my 17 years of living, never have I ever been in a position where I felt like I was in control. Many dream of being a strong influence in the world, many wish to accomplish something that will imprint this  world forever, but this program  gives one the opportunity to do just that.

At the end of the day, our bodies, our thoughts, and even our lives are temporary, but our words…words on paper shall be preserved. Youth Narrating Our World allows us, as youth of Chicago, to change the world with our diction and courage. The first day went very smoothly, and empowered us to realize our effect on the world.

 –  Mia Resa is a junior at Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep and wants to be a pediatrician/activist/emergency medical technician.

After one session, I am confident the OpEd Project is preparing me to become a true thought-leader.  The OpEd Project is giving youth the chance to voice their valuable opinions through their writing abilities and more.  This program is helping me realize the power of sharing my truths with the entire world.  I am African-American and female, a group whose voice is underrepresented in the media and society.  Despite all of this, I have to realize the value of my contributions to the public.

–  Kaylynn Cusic is a junior at Young Women’s Leadership Academy in Chicago.  She plans to study biomedical engineering in college.

 

Youth Narrating Our World Launches in Chicago via The OpEd Project

Guest blog post by Michele Weldon, leader of Youth Narrating Our World, facilitator of Northwestern Public Voices Fellowship, and public seminar leader.

Principal Allen, Michele Weldon, Zeba Khan, Katie Orenstein, and Deborah Douglas

Principal Alan Mather, Michele Weldon, Zeba Khan, Katie Orenstein, and Deborah Douglas

More black super heroes. Fresh, good food available in all neighborhoods. Encouragement for young women in math and science.

These were just a few of the answers from hundreds of students at four Chicago public high schools when asked about critical issues important to them that are missing from mainstream media.

During the four  keynote presentations of Youth Narrating Our World over two days last month, a team of journalist leaders from The OpEd Project engaged more than 700 students in a lively, interactive discussion on ways to establish credibility and participate in the larger public media conversation.

At Lindblom Math & Science Academy, a young woman stood in the back of the filled auditorium and spoke loud enough to be heard over the rows of more than 350 students.

“Safe passages are not safe,” she said. “My brother was shot in front of school yesterday.”

Lindblom principal Alan Mather stood near the student and offered support.

During the interactive talks, The OpEd Project founder Katie Orenstein explained to students in anecdotes, graphics and statistics that only a narrow section of society contribute to the media, while so many more underrepresented voices from women, persons of color, youth and others are absent from media outlets.

“What is the cost of these missing voices?” Orenstein asked.

Sometimes erupting in applause and always eager to participate, the students engaged in a dissection and discussion of the notion of “evidence-based” arguments that are “timely and of public value.” Students eagerly talked about ideas and issues that are critical to their families, schools and communities that are not reported in the media.

A team of journalist leaders including Orenstein, Deborah Douglas, Zeba Khan and me, worked with students in smaller groups to identify their personal expertise in order to establish credibility on specific issues.

Over two days, we led one and a half hour lively presentations at each of the high schools, including Walter Payton College Prep, Young Women’s Leadership Academy, Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep and Lindblom.

For the first time through The OpEd Project, the three-part curriculum of Youth Narrating Our World will be offered to high school students. This is the same polished core curriculum offered over the past three years as Public Voices Fellowships to faculty at universities including Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Northwestern, Dartmouth, Emory and Fordham.

Students were solicited to enter an essay contest of 300 words submitted to school administrators on issues critical to their lives. On the basis of those essays, 20 students (five from each high school) were chosen for Youth Narrating Our World that starts with the first convening October 12 and ends with a third convening January 18.

In order to be chosen, students needed to commit to attending all three convenings and also writing at least two op/eds for publication, in addition to any other form of thought leadership on any platform during the period of high-level mentoring.

I will lead the program with Douglas; together we have a collective half-century of experience as journalists. We both also have decades of experience teaching journalism at the graduate and undergraduate levels at The Medill School at Northwestern University.

Douglas said she is pleased to be a part of this important mentoring program. She explained, “If I can see a goal in my head, tell myself the story of how I can get there, chances are I can achieve that goal. That’s the way it’s always worked for me.” She added, “Telling your story helps to articulate a vision of great things that can happen and important change that needs to happen — when you first learn to speak up.”

Lauret Savoys Explains the “Miracle” of the OEP

Lauret Savoy, an alum of our Mount Holyoke program and an environmental science professor at the school, writes a guest blog post about the “miracle” of The OpEd Project.

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Lauret Savoy

I attended a day-long OpEd Project seminar hosted by Mount Holyoke and Smith colleges, two of the nation’s oldest women’s colleges.  Katie Orenstein opened the program with this key question: “Who narrates the world?”  What startled me was how fast I responded under my breath, “Certainly not me.”  I know the vital importance of the stories we tell of the world and of ourselves in it.  Yet, as Katie spoke in her keynote and in the small workshop, it became clear how much I silence myself, a self-saboteur still believing deep inside that she has little to say and no authority to speak.  Katie probed and pushed me in the small group.  What is the bigger picture—and how do I and my ideas fit into it?  The next question brought tears: Do I understand my knowledge and experience in terms of why they might matter to others?  I began to see “responsibility” more fully as my ability and capacity to respond.

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From Savoy’s op-ed. Anne Marie Fox/The Weinstein Company/AP

I just wrote my first opinion piece, prompted by the press on White House butlers and the movie by producer-director Lee Daniels.  The piece points our how African Americans have always been in those rooms of executive power.  Enslaved and free men cleared sites for Washington, DC, then built the city, including much of the Capitol and the President’s House (later called the White House).  Most presidents before the 1850s staffed the White House with enslaved servants.  The pieces focuses on one man who worked for 21 secretaries of state under 14 presidencies.  A man whose life and contributions are little known today, yet whose story reveals the troubling ties between African Americans and the nation’s capital.  To think of him and others as silent, behind-the scenes witnesses is to consider the past through a narrow frame.

I requested a mentor at 9 AM; by 1:30 PM the same day she (Cassandra West) had read and responded to my draft.  Cassandra was gracious, generous, thoughtful, supportive, and to the point.  Her edits clarified and strengthened the piece.  Then I learned that she attended the college where I work.  I felt I’d met a new friend and colleague.

Editors at the Washington Post and New York Times praised the op-ed but declined (it wasn’t current enough).  The Christian Science Monitor published it.  The piece was distributed in syndication through the Monitor’s deal with Yahoo! News online.

I’ve gone from questioning the worth of my ideas to believing this is just the start.  And I owe this opening to The OpEd Project.  My silencing fears only diminished me.

Q&A with Anat Admati, Stanford Professor and Author

Anat AdmatiAnat Admati, one of our alums at Stanford,  did a Q&A with us in light of her recent op-ed in The New York Times and her book, Bankers’ New Clothes. As a professor of finance and economics at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, Anat has written numerous op-eds in places like Bloomberg and The Takeaway.   She talks about the journey from her first op-ed nearly two years ago to where she is today.

Tell us briefly about your background and expertise.
I teach at Stanford’s business school.  My research has been in various parts of financial economics. I’m originally from Israel, my first degrees are from Hebrew University in mathematics and statistics, then I got a doctorate from Yale and eventually became an expert in finance and economics.

What has been the trajectory from your first op-ed to where you are today?
My first op-ed I worked on with OEP had nothing to do with my expertise but my  experience and what I learned as a parent.  I got involved in volunteer activities and got in the local paper about suicide prevention.Since then, I wrote a number of op-eds about banking regulations, financial stability, and financial reform.  They started with a bunch of letters to the editors.  They were in the Financial Times, Bloomberg, and more recently wrote for broader publications.  It was partly because I wrote a book for a broader audience.

The op-eds  were meant to get more voice in that debate where [the financial] participants actually preferred not to hear what some of us had to say.

And you published a book recently?
Yes, the book [titled The Bankers’ New Clothes] came out February.  I started writing it after more than a year of writing letters and op-eds (in addition to other writing).  I could never get enough of the full argument in, so it’s really a pause from an op-ed to write a much longer and more detailed book.

Tell us about your recent piece for The New York Times.
On December 27, 2012, I got a solicitation for an essay for The New York Times. I spent the next few weeks trying  to write one good enough to submit, but then I didn’t hear back anything for a long time.  So the lede got a bit dated.   I finally heard something and after that, there were a number of developments …a lot of rewriting …it was hard to know it would ever end.  Particularly with some papers like the Times, there are multiple editors and hard to predict how it would work.Ultimately, I got them to agree to publish something in August.

The biggest thing with the New York Times was getting their attention. The silent treatments were hard because it’s so hard to actually engage and get them to respond.

What has most surprised you about having such a big public voice?
With my academic expertise I wasn’t an expert in banking at the time.   And it’s difficult communicating with people without the background.  I was surprised at some of the level of discussion and at the great need and yet the lack of people able and willing to have the necessary voice. A lot of what was being said was wrong or confusing and in great need of straightening out. I discovered a huge void.

Did you expect this level of success?
I didn’t come into this expecting to be successful as an op-ed writer. I needed to have a public voice because people who were involved behind the scenes didn’t want to engage sometimes.  It became clear they would only engage with the ideas if I spoke publicly.  In other words, I needed to get more people to understand what I was saying. It was essential to have a public voice to have the voice that I originally wanted.  So having a public voice was more motivated to put pressure on people who preferred not to engage.

I was motivated by an urgent need to have an impact, because I realized that without this voice, many people would continue to be harmed by bad policy.  The op eds and the book were the way to get through to more people. Since the topic is a bit complicated, success was not clear.

You can follow Anat on Twitter at @anatadmati.

Michele Weldon: Can’t Cut This? Sure You Can

A guest post by Public Voices Fellowship leader Michele Weldon

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In my writing workshops, I lie a little. I tell students in my memoir and essay writing classes to “strive to be undeletable.” It’s a goal. I intend it as a mission to inspire them to write so pristinely, concisely and adroitly that an editor will have goosebumps over each word choice and agree that deleting even a single syllable is an unfathomable attack on humanity.

But the truth is we all can be edited. My first paragraph above can be cut by about 15 words.

At The OpEd Project, we work with editors at scores of media outlets who have varying word counts—600 words up to 1,500 words– and the latter is a rarity. These are not random story lengths. Each site, newspaper or magazine has oodles of audience research on how long a reader/clicker/listener/viewer stays with a story and on what platform.

Michele at a public seminar, teaching attendants about voice and expertise

Michele at a public seminar, teaching attendants about voice and expertise

For instance, someone who views the story on mobile may spend less time on it than someone who flips through the ink on paper product on a Sunday. Not always true, and not true for some kinds of stories on some topics; there are always exceptions to every rule.

Audience research is a complicated and fascinating data maze.  All said, the editors know best. So as a writer who wants editors to run your work regularly, do comply. Editors prefer to work with writers they do not have to have fights with on length every time.

Fellows I have worked with at the Public Voices Fellowships (Stanford, Princeton and Northwestern universities) can sometimes turn in a draft that is 2,000 words and claim they cannot imagine deleting as much as a comma. I understand.  This is what I call falling in love with your words.  You have researched thoroughly, painstakingly articulated your argument, and organized it thoughtfully.

Stanford Public Voices Fellows from 2011

Stanford Public Voices Fellows from 2011

But it is time to give your love a little space.  And let some of your love go.

I can work with the faculty member on it, cut the piece to under 1,000 words and still maintain the integrity of the argument. Then I pitch to an editor, imagining it is a lean, mean opinion machine. And guess what? The editor cuts another 400 words. But it runs, people comment and the editor wants to work with the writer again.

I have had literally thousands of stories I loved cut. Some to smithereens, some gently or barely at all.  Three decades into a journalism career working for newspapers, magazines and digital outlets, I still get cut. A few months ago, I pitched an essay to an editor, who responded within minutes that she “loved it.” I was thrilled; it was 1,100 words. She asked me to cut it down to 800-900 words. I did. She then cut it to 600 before publishing it.

Several weeks ago I pitched the New York Times an essay. An editor responded immediately that it was “great.” The editor cut it from 1,200 words to 500 words and ran it in the Room for Debate section. I then told the editor my plan to use the unused parts and published the out-takes in my column on Huffington Post. All of my words were published—just in two separate places. I was inordinately pleased.

I have been having the word count “discussion”—OK, fight—with journalism students at The Medill School at Northwestern University for 17 years. I ask for 500 words, they turn in 800. I ask for 1,500, they turn in 3,000. And I always say, give the editor what he or she asks for. Why? Because you want to be low-maintenance. And you can repurpose the outtakes perhaps for another op-ed. You want to be the writer who does not need her work edited with a machete. You want the editor to be able to use most all the words you submit and edit your piece with a tweezers, not a chainsaw.

It is true that I lied about being undeletable. But if you submit the word count required, chances are no one will have to cut your words—or at least a lot of your words. That is because you will have cut them down to size yourself.

 

Rejection Just Means You Haven’t Asked the Right Person

A guest post by Anat Shenker-Osorio, a San Francisco public seminar alum.  Her piece in The Atlantic was among the publication’s “Today’s Top Stories” on Aug. 1st.  

Anat Shenker-Osorio on C-SPAN

Anat Shenker-Osorio on C-SPAN

Since my San Francisco OpEd Project seminar almost three years ago, I’ve landed a few articles, published a book, been on national television, and gotten rejected. And rejected some more.

I can no longer remember all of the outlets that have rejected me, let alone the number of times each has intoned “Thanks, but no thanks.” But some particular incidents stand out. Like the time an editor from one of the most respected dailies reached out soliciting an op-ed from me based on the ideas in my book. Dropping everything, I worked furiously through the weekend, roping in my book editor and the kindest ever Mentor from The OpEd Project to help me revise my work.

Having spun for myself some pretty sweet fantasies — Fresh Air, Colbert, you name it — about who would be calling for me once my by-line appeared in this paper, the editors passed. Then, this happened about five more times with magazines and other papers.

I’d love to say I’ve learned to temper my tendency to see any nibble as the first step toward name recognition, respect for my research and a chance to meet Stephen Colbert. But I haven’t. What I have gained instead is the admittedly unsexy knowledge that “No” just means “Rework it and ask someone else.”  Follow the news, wait till your point is timely, rework your lede and send it to another person. In fact, my latest piece in the Atlantic began its life over a year ago as that aforementioned solicited and rejected op-ed.

 

Family and More at Write to Change the World in Chicago

The Write to Change the World seminar yesterday in Chicago was special in many ways.  We had not one, not two, but three amazing teachers–Deborah Siegel, Michele Weldon, and Deborah Douglas (her first time leading for us!)–to work with a full-to-the-brim session of close to 30 people.  There was a group of inspiring nonprofit folks who came through on a McCormick Foundation grant.  And, it was a very family-friendly environment with Allen Siegel, Deborah Siegel’s father, in attendance, as well as Weldon Rogers, Michele Weldon’s oldest son.
From left: Weldon Rogers, Michele Weldon, Deborah Siegel, and Allen Siegel

From left: Weldon Rogers, Michele Weldon, Deborah Siegel, and Allen Siegel

Weldon, who recently earned his Master’s in Contemporary History and returned to the U.S. after spending two years in Spain, shared his thoughts with us in this guest post:
“The OpEd Project seminar is an invaluable professional resource. Far from the typical training that teaches a journalistic skill, the seminar teaches people how to define and articulate their ideas and skill sets in a concise, clear way that can reach a general audience. You learn how to understand and present yourself to the world. You learn how to articulate an idea and translate it into a publishable piece of journalism. You learn how your perspective can be useful to others.

What you take away from the seminar can be applied in nearly any professional area: an interview, a presentation, even in simple conversation. Making yourself accessible and understandable means that you can connect with more people, become influential in a broader sense, and in turn, attract more opportunities. The OpEd project mission is highly important yet surprisingly simple: define your unique expertise and tell the world.”

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