Raise Your Voice

I’ve been deeply moved by the stories I’ve been hearing from Americans of color about police abuse and racism they’ve encountered. As a white person, I’ve tried to listen and learn from them.

Their stories were on my mind this past week when I led an online workshop for science graduate students on how to write op-ed articles. The participants came from several North Carolina universities and other states and countries. You can see some of them in the Zoom screen, above, and watch a video of my opening talk here.

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I was actually the associate vice president of news and communications at Duke. I had darker hair then, too.

Our conversation yielded some tips you may find helpful if you choose to raise your own voice now or in the future.

Several of the participants wrote about science-related topics. One described the pressures women scientists face when raising children. Another who works with the Australian parliament warned about the Covid-19 pandemic diverting resources from tuberculosis prevention there and in Asia.

Others addressed the meaning of George Floyd’s horrific murder, such as an African American graduate who feels torn between her Ph.D. studies in neuroscience and wanting to participate in protest marches. A participant in England said she’s been reminded of racism she witnessed as a girl in Liverpool. An Indian-American graduate student who grew up in Minneapolis wrote about seeing her home town with new eyes.

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The group had some amazing stories and we worked together to identify ways they could tell them more powerfully. For instance: 

  • Get to the point immediately. With an op-ed article, as with social media, you only have a few seconds to grab a reader.
  • Tie your article to something happening in the news, if possible.
  • Embrace your own identity and voice. Readers respond best to a person they can identify with. If you could just persuade them with facts, well, we wouldn’t still be arguing about global warming.
  • Make the abstract real. Use examples and details to bring your argument to life. Describe the crazy thing that happened to you last Thursday.
  • Tell readers why they should care. How will your issue affect their kids, their job or their community? 

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Most of all, speak as a fellow human being, not as a faceless expert.  Statistics and policy arguments have their place, but, as the expression goes, people don’t care what you think unless they think that you care. As I wrote in Inside Higher Ed, “Many academics approach op-eds as an exercise in solemnity. Frankly, they’d improve their chances if they’d lighten up.”

When I spoke about some of this with a group of young entrepreneurs in Moldova, while I was a Peace Corps Volunteer there, I used an Oprah Winfrey speech to illustrate how we humans make sense of the world through stories. Whether you’re writing a traditional op-ed article or using another platform, the best way to persuade someone is by starting with your own truth — something you’ve lived and experienced, or have seen with your own eyes. Only then should you pull the camera back to explore the bigger picture.

I discuss these and several other ideas in my op-ed guidelines, my free online class on Coursera and a how-to chapter from an op-ed anthology I produced for the National Academy of Sciences. Maybe you’ll find these resources useful in raising your voice, too.

For myself, now that I’ve completed this post, I’m going back to listening.

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