Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Can your op-ed land the crucial one-two punch?

When you write an op-ed or letter to the editor (the shorter version of the form), do you pull your punches or land the crucial one-two punch that makes an opinion piece strong and effective? It's the simplest test of whether you've included the vital part of an op-ed: An opinion. 

Too many leaders, perhaps afraid to offend, manage to leave the opinion out of these editorials, an easy way to ensure they never appear. But the most effective op-eds land that punch in two places.  If you don't find the opinion in the first and last paragraphs, your op-ed's viewpoint won't win the day.

Take this recent example, an otherwise fine op-ed by the Rockefeller Foundation's Janice Nittoli. She has a clear position to propose, and the Times gave it a clear, pithy headline: "Pay Workers Fairly and Save Money." The first paragraph sets up the situation well and with appeal in two sentences:
Despite persistent unemployment and stagnant wages, few believe that our cash-strapped government is likely to simply create better-paying jobs. But there is a way for this country to get more from the millions of jobs we already finance with federal dollars, while reducing the cost of entitlement programs.
Then, instead of telling us what that way is, we get another paragraph with five sentences of argument--before we really know what we're arguing for. The real opinion awaits the reader in paragraph three, if the reader makes it there: "President Obama should mandate, in an executive order, that all federal contractors obey the wage and hour laws already on the books." Here is a punch that was pulled. We might have learned earlier that the focus was on federal contractors, and the desired mechanism for change. In that sense, an op-ed lede should be like any other, leaving you with a clear idea of the point, in case you can read no further.

The concluding paragraph does a better job at landing its punch in the final line, which reiterates what the author wants to see happen--a specific action by the president--although I'd have liked that line to reiterate the point with more specificity, to drive that point home:
Too many of them depend on public assistance to supplement their wages. As taxpayers, we pour money into this leaky bucket and end up paying twice for services we get once. Safety nets are important, but we should also seek to lay out trampolines to lift workers into a growth economy. One act of leadership could make our federal spending part of the solution instead of the problem.
The one-two punch approach ensures that you nail that opinion where it will have the most emphasis, before the reader loses interest. It also plays to your audience by inserting the answer to "so what?" instead of sharing all your data and arguments first. I use this chart to show that the way most experts are trained to make an argument is exactly the opposite of what your public audience is expecting--and you don't need to be a scientist for this to apply to your area of expertise:

The one-two punch is easy to plan when you're writing an op-ed, but it also should be part of your review before submitting the piece. Can I find and grasp your point by reading just the first and last paragraphs? Are your supporting arguments clearly sandwiched in the middle? If not, back to the locker room for you...

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