Developed in collaboration with Dr. Dan Pomeroy, manager of MIT’s International Policy Lab.

Criteria for success

  1. The presentation starts with the main policy implication of your work or recommendation.
  2. Do not spend time on your methods; policy makers are not peer reviewers and trust your work.
  3. Unnecessary scientific detail and jargon is kept to a minimum.
  4. Each slide has a title that stands on it own and tells a single message.
  5. Figures have the minimum amount of information to make your point and nothing more.

Purpose

Generally, when an academic is presenting to a policy audience, they are either providing information, typically in response to a request, or making policy recommendations. In the case of the former, it is important to directly answer the questions and not just provide generally relevant information. For the latter, the more specific you can, be the better.

Policy makers often do not have time to devise solutions based on problems presented to them, but can instead evaluate, modify, and hopefully adopt the suggestions of experts. Therefore, if you can lay out a blueprint for what they will do from the time they leave the room through the implementation of your recommendation, you will significantly increase the likelihood that your recommendation is considered. Policy makers appreciate proposals for action that are clear and articulate and show that they have been thought through before presentation.

Finally, you might also provide recommendations by laying out a variety of policy options and identifying the pros and cons of each.

Structure Diagram

As scientists and engineers, we often present work as a story, where we present a problem and then innovative methods developed to address the problem. However, if policy makers do not grasp the relevance of the talk within the first few minutes, their minds may wander to other business or personal issues. You must quickly present the conclusions of your work, along with desired actions, and state how this relates to the problems on their desk.

Only after presenting the take-away message should you begin to present supporting arguments and data. Try to organize all the details of your presentation into 1-3 arguments and group these ideas together to support the take-away message. Each slide should be structured to convey a single message or sub-point (see below).

After major sections, come back to your Agenda slide, highlighting the section to be covered next. If your arguments are presented in a logical order, this will help your audience follow your presentation.

The final slide (or second-to-last slide if the final slide is “Next Steps”) should reiterate the take-away message and look a lot like the first slide.

Analyze your audience

Whether presenting to Congressional staff or Executive branch officials, keep in mind there are likely few, if any, scientists in your audience. Your audience will not have depth in your scientific area of expertise, but they are smart and can learn quickly. Furthermore, policy makers are constantly evaluating new information and requests as they arrive through the day. You may be presenting to an audience that is busy or distracted and you must communicate as effectively as possible in the limited time available.

When possible, learn the background on specific members of the audience. Before any presentation to policy makers, make sure to know what issues they are currently discussing and debating. Try to learn specifics such as their voting record, committee assignments, or past statements on the topic. If possible, learn as much as you can about their agenda, why this topic or presentation is important to them, and whether you expect any pre-conceived biases or opinions.  

Skills

Each slide should convey a single point

The purpose of each slide is to convey a message using visual evidence as support. Ask yourself what minimum set of things needs to be shown for the slide to make its point and only include elements that you actually plan to talk about.

To help get your main points across, use strong titles with complete sentences that explicitly state the slide’s main takeaway. Weak titles tend to be nouns like “Background” or “Incidence of cancer.” A strong title might say “Lung cancer incidence is increasing 5% per year.” Ideally, someone should be able to flip through the presentation and understand the argument by just reading slide titles.

If a slide makes multiple points, try one of the following:

  • Remove points that don’t come up later in the talk
  • Make multiple slides, each with their own message, title, and content
  • Make parts of the slide appear and disappear to display different pieces of content that together support the title’s message

Make each slide as simple as possible while still conveying its message

Treat the message you want to communicate as your “signal”. Your goal is to transmit this signal as clearly as possible to your audience. For each message, spend time thinking about the best way to transmit the signal to your audience. For example, text and visual media can deliver identical messages, but with different clarity.

  • Tables list information with little context or interpretation. They are best for highlighting individual values or drawing attention to a precise value.
  • Figures illustrate conclusions with evidence and are open to interpretation. Figures are better suited for viewing the overall shape of the data.
  • Text and speech tell precise statements.

Anything that interferes with communication of your message is “noise”.

Noise from evidence

Don’t drown your audience in data: include only the minimum data necessary to make your point. Including evidence that doesn’t directly support your message distracts from evidence that does. For example, if only three data points matter in a complicated line plot, perhaps you could highlight those three numbers by displaying them in a table instead.

Noise from presentation

The way you present your chosen evidence can also draw attention away from your message. The example below gives a few common techniques for how a slide can be improved to remove noise.

  1. The title of the slide is changed from a description of the data to a message about the data.
  2. Legends are moved directly next to the data they describe, so the reader doesn’t have to look back and forth and match colors.
  3. Color scheme is simplified and changed to draw attention the the relevant portion of data.
  4. Unnecessary 3D graphics are removed.

Source: Trees, Maps, and Theorems, by Jean-Luc Doumont, page 99

Many other types of noise exist. For example, unnecessary gridlines, axis labels, and color  can clutter a figure. Ask yourself what you want your audience to take away from the figure, and how you can make it easier for them to locate and focus on the relevant information. The format and style of your presentation should never distract from the content.

Choose figure designs that best communicate your message

Just as words may be better or worse at communicating an idea, different figure designs may be better or worse at communicating your message. In designing a successful figure, consider which media, figure types, and plot types (see below for examples of each) best highlight your message. For complex messages, multiple panels can break down a message into clear statements. Multi-panel figures will likely employ a combination of media and plot types. Use the complementary strengths of each element to communicate your message.

Plot types emphasize different types of data.

What are you trying to show with your data: a correlation, a distribution, an event in time?

If you’re trying to show… …try this presentation
Overall distribution of data If possible, show the entire data set
Large data set Histograms, box plots: summarize features of the distribution
Events in time

Evolution of a variable

Line plot
Correlations Scatter plot

Use simple, consistent formatting

  • Use a consistent font and font size: e.g., 24 for slide titles, 16 for text in slide, and 10 for axis labels.
  • Make sure all graphics are sized such that all text is readable.
  • Simplify data labels by removing generic gridlines and other visual clutter.
  • Instead add emphasis to key points only using colors, arrows, or labels.
  • All axes on graphs should be labeled and titled and units should be indicated in parentheses, e.g., “Revenues ($M)”. Only use 3-5 tick marks with labels on each axis. These labels should be only numbers, sine you have already included units in the axis label.
  • Leave whitespace on your slide. A dense slide is hard to read. A spacious slide will have less information, but your reader will understand more of it.

Additional resources

Developed in collaboration with Dr. Dan Pomeroy, manager of MIT’s International Policy Lab.

Criteria for success

  1. Read and understand the proposed regulation.
  2. Answer any questions posed in the prompt.
  3. Establish your credentials by stating who you are and why the proposed regulation is relevant to you.
  4. Provide concrete suggestions and changes to the proposed regulation.
  5. Support all claims and arguments with evidence.

Structure Diagram

While there is no established format or length for public comments, a well-organized comment will make it easier for regulators to quickly understand your main arguments.

Purpose

Public comments are your opportunity to provide input into the development of  regulations proposed by federal agencies (e.g. EPA, FDA, FAA). Generally, comments are written in support or dissent of a proposed regulation. Dissenting comments may also propose alternative policy options.

After the public comment period ends, federal agencies are required to review and respond to issues raised during the comment period, before issuing a final ruling. However, the comment process is not a vote. One well-written comment can outweigh many poorly written or form-letter comments. Therefore, a single comment that provides constructive suggestions backed by evidence is likely to influence the final regulation and may even elicit a request for additional information.

Analyze your audience

Your comment should be addressed to the specific agency or official who posted the proposed regulation. As with other science policy communication, assume regulators reading your comment do not have a scientific background, and are ultimately interested in the “real-world” impact of policies. Focus on describing this impact, rather than on scientific details or methodology. For example, estimates of the potential economic effects or human health impacts are often the most effective.

Finally,keep in mind that your comments may be made publicly available and your audience may eventually become the general public.  

Skills

Read and understand the regulatory document

Before beginning to write your comment, make sure you have thoroughly read the proposed regulation. In some cases, regulatory agencies will ask for specific comments on particular aspects of a proposed regulation. Be sure you are addressing the specific questions asked and not the questions you wish the regulator would ask.

You don’t have to respond to every issue, but you should at least make sure you have read the entire document before selecting the specific issues to discuss. If there are aspects of the regulatory document that you don’t understand, you can reach out to agency contacts mentioned in the document. The posted notice should list the staff available to contact.

Establish your credentials

To make your comment more persuasive, clearly state your relevant credentials and experience on topics related to the proposed regulations. While personal views and experience are less persuasive than data and facts, stating your professional experiences lends credibility to your comment and increases the chances of persuading regulators to your viewpoint.

Make sure to explain why you personally are writing about the proposed regulation. In some cases, writing about how the proposed regulation will affect you personally may be appropriate.

Make clear and specific recommendations supported by evidence

The most helpful comments provide specific evidence for all claims. Rather than simply stating that you  agree or disagree with a proposed regulation, state why you agree or disagree. Make sure to provide arguments supported by data and expert opinions. You should clearly explain how you arrived at any assumptions or estimations. If needed, you can include references in your comment to provide additional data.

If you disagree with a proposed a regulation, provide concrete alternative suggestions (which could include no regulation at all), rather than simply disagreeing. A regulatory agency is more likely to adopt your proposal if you provide an idea they can adopt, rather than general criticism. If you don’t have a specific proposal, you can discuss the pros and cons of other possible regulations.

There will likely be other comments written that support viewpoints contradicting your own. To help regulators parse contradictory arguments, try to refute these alternative viewpoints with specific evidence.

Additional Resources

Developed in collaboration with Dr. Dan Pomeroy, manager of MIT’s International Policy Lab.

Criteria for Success

A successful elevator pitch…

  1. Puts your bottom line up front; start with what you want them to do.
  2. Uses a short analogy instead of facts and statistics.
  3. Connects with the interests or values of the policy maker.
  4. Is executed in ~30 seconds.

Structure Diagram

Purpose

A policy-focused “elevator pitch” conveys, as concisely as possible, the following:

  1. A recommendation that you want a policy maker to act on,
  2. Why they should want to act, and
  3. What the results of that action will be

Unlike policy memos, full meetings, or presentations, it does not need to include a detailed plan of action. Instead, it should identify a slightly broader set of topics and pull the audience in so they’ll want to discuss the details.

These elevator pitches can be used at the start of meetings with policy makers to help set the tone and agenda for the meeting. They are also very valuable when attempting to initiate a longer conversation with someone who might normally only have a short time to talk with you.

Analyze Your Audience

A successful pitch prompts the listener to respond, “Interesting–tell me more!” All decisions about content and delivery should be based on what will engage your specific audience.

Skills

Select pitch content by answering key questions

  1. Why am I meeting with or talking this person?
  2. What aspect of my work will be most exciting to my audience?
  3. How can I best frame my work to connect with their values or interests?

Your pitch should be tailor-made for your audience: select the information that will be most compelling to that specific person.

Use simple language and natural delivery

The way we write is different from the way we speak. When drafting your pitch on paper, you might find that your sentences and words tend to be longer and more complicated. This structure is nearly always overly rigid for a pitch and will feel forced when you try to deliver it aloud. Additionally, your audience will likely have trouble following your ideas. Keep the sentence structure and words simple so that your delivery feels natural and your audience can follow the ideas you are presenting.

Keep it concise

Start by drafting a pitch for the action you want. Don’t overthink it. Just jot down how you might respond to someone asking, “So what can I do for you?”

You may come up with something pressing and important, but long and detailed. Listeners have a short attention span. To maximize your audience engagement, your pitch should not be longer than about 30 seconds.

To parse down your draft, cross out all the nonessential words until you feel you cannot cross out any more. Don’t worry about leaving complete sentences or phrases—push yourself to cut as much as possible. Now that you have a small handful of keywords, insert as few words as possible to link together these concepts. Don’t worry about keeping the keywords in their original order: rearrange your draft until it creates a cohesive narrative.

Example Pitch Writing

Step 1: Start with a short description of your research.

My research is on licensing of next generation nuclear power plants. There is very limited experience in the United States with the design, construction, operation, and licensing of next generation non light water or advanced nuclear reactors. These reactors are very different than the existing fleet of nuclear reactors; the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has little to no experience reviewing the safety these designs and lack the tools and analysis techniques necessary to independently assess their safety. Additionally, the current regulations have been optimized for the existing fleet so new regulations or exemptions to existing regulations will be required before a designer can even submit a license of an advanced nuclear reactor design. My research group focuses on methods to develop new regulations and analysis tools to provide a licensing pathway for advanced nuclear reactor designs and ensure that we’re safely designing, constructing, and operating the next generation of nuclear power plants.  

Step 2: Bold the most important words or concepts.

My research is on licensing of next generation nuclear power plants. There is very limited experience in the United States with the design, construction, operation, and licensing of next generation non light water or advanced nuclear reactors. These reactors are very different than the existing fleet of nuclear reactors; the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has little to no experience reviewing the safety these designs and lack the tools and analysis techniques necessary to independently assess their safety. Additionally, the current regulations have been optimized for the existing fleet so new regulations or exemptions to existing regulations will be required before a designer can even submit a license of an advanced nuclear reactor design. My research group focuses on methods to develop new regulations and analysis tools to provide a licensing pathway for advanced nuclear reactor designs and ensure that we’re safely designing, constructing, and operating the next generation of nuclear power plants.

Step 3: Combine the rearranged words to create a concise narrative, while adding as few extra words as possible.

The [Nuclear Regulatory Commission lacks] [the tools and analysis techniques necessary to independently assess] the [next generation of nuclear power plants] due to their [limited experience] with [advanced nuclear reactors]. My research is on [new regulations and analysis tools] that can help [ensure] the [safety] of these designs.

Step 4: Add context for the audience. What do you want them to do and why should they want to do it? For the end of the pitch, what will the impact of their decisions be?

What?  Start developing regulations for advanced nuclear power plants.

Why? Advanced nuclear power plants can provide carbon free power and help fight climate change.

Impact? Having a system to support advanced nuclear means faster deployment of low carbon energy sources.

Step 5: Write out the full pitch and revise.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission needs to begin developing regulations for advanced nuclear power plants. [What]

These advanced nuclear reactors could provide the carbon free energy we need to address climate change issues. [Why]

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission lacks the tools and analysis techniques necessary to independently assess the next generation of nuclear power plants due their limited experience with advanced nuclear reactors. My research is on new regulations and analysis tools that can help ensure the safety of these designs. [Research]

Creating regulations for advanced nuclear power plants will help us more rapidly deploy advanced nuclear power plants. [Impact]

Step 6: Finalize editing and practice so you’re comfortable, but it’s not overly rehearsed.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission needs to begin developing regulations that will govern the operation of the next generation of nuclear power plants. These advanced nuclear reactors could provide the carbon free energy we need to address climate change issues.  However, the NRC has not even begun to think about safety and licensing of these power plants. My research group has developed tools and safety analysis that could be a valuable input to this process. We need to start this work now if we’ll be able to start building and operating safe advanced nuclear power plants in the next decade.

Developed in collaboration with Dr. Dan Pomeroy, manager of MIT’s International Policy Lab.

Criteria for success

  1. Make a clear ask based on your position.
  2. Make letter readable by target audience (legislators, staffers, etc).
  3. Make a clear argument (economic, health, social, etc.) on your bill or issue of interest and support it with your research or expertise.

Structure diagram


Purpose

As an expert in your field, you can provide outside validation for or against a proposed policy. Use your research and expertise to provide weight to an argument. Your letter should use your technical knowledge to make a clear recommendation based on reasons that the member of Congress will care about.

Skills

Establish your credentials

  • Give relevant title and background to establish your expertise

Make a clear argument

  • Make a case to that office: use arguments that will appeal to the policy maker and their constituents.
  • Use anecdotes and analogies over facts and figures when possible.
  • Limit use of jargon or technical details except when they’re critical to your argument.

Hammer home your ask

  • In your first paragraph, make your ask for in support or opposition to a specific action: “We urge your support for H.R. ##, which will help to…”, “We write in strong support of..”, “We oppose cuts to…”
  • Be specific. If you are writing in reference to a specific bill, include the bill number.
  • Repeat your ask. In your conclusion, summarize your argument and repeat your specific call for action.

Use proper style

  • Avoid informal language.
  • Keep it brief. Keep letters to one page and try to discuss only one bill or issue in a given letter. Make use of bullet points to outline several arguments.

Additional examples

(see also Annotated Examples in the right sidebar)

Developed in collaboration with Dr. Dan Pomeroy, manager of MIT’s International Policy Lab.

Criteria for success

  1. Get staffer or elected official interested in your idea by showing how it relates to their voters or existing policy priorities.
  2. Give staffer or elected official a concrete reason for why their office should care: how it affects their constituents, their core policy interests, or the nation as a whole.
  3. Make a clear and specific ask for what you want them to do as soon as they leave that meeting.

Purpose

Hill meetings are not the same as meetings in academia. You will typically meet with a congressional staffer who meets with constituents, lobbyists, and various special interests all day. Each staffer covers a broad portfolio of policy issues. For example, one staffer may cover all issues related to education, science & technology, and agriculture. Therefore, they are rarely an expert in any one area, but rather have the ability to learn any area very quickly. Also, they typically do not have time to develop policy solutions themselves. Instead, they act as a filter for requests to a Congress member, deciding which recommendations are worth passing on to their boss.

You will typically meet for 15-30 minutes in a small space in their office. However, as things can get hectic in DC, you may end up meeting in a hallway or room that has some traffic. They may also be distracted by emails or other people in the room, so you need to come in with a focused plan of how you are going to clearly get your message across.

Structure Diagram

Analyze your audience

  • Research the office you’re meeting with. What committee does the member sit on? Have they voted or made statements about this issue before? Find as much of the history of their position on the topic as possible.
  • Research the constituency. Ultimately, whatever you are suggesting needs to be something their constituents support. Make sure to understand what major industries employ or concern their constituents and what their stances may be on the issue.
  • Assume Hill staff know nothing about your topic, but can learn anything. Make sure to give sufficient background for an intelligent outsider to get up-to-speed on your topic. Avoid sounding condescending in your explanation.

Skills

Define your ask

Begin your meeting by stating your ask, clearly defined in actionable terms. Give specific bill numbers and know where a bill is in the legislative process. Don’t ask a member of Congress to act on a bill when they’re not on the right committee.

Do your homework

Research not just the policy issue but also the politics. Who supports what you are proposing and who opposes, or will oppose, it? What are the arguments the opposition will make? Does your issue or bill already have bipartisan support or only co-sponsors from one party?

Share this information with the staffer.

Provide clear and actionable suggestions

Make sure that your issue and your ask have an action that this office can do if motivated. Examples of clear and actionable suggestions include:

  • Vote for or against a bill
  • Sponsor a bill
  • Sign on to a appropriations letters
  • Sign on to a “Dear Colleague” letter (used to encourage other members on an issue)

Be professional

  • Bring your business cards. Congressional offices will ask for them when you check in as a record of meeting.
  • Be on time. Allow at least 20 minutes to get to/from your meetings, especially when going between the House and Senate buildings. You’ll need time to walk between buildings, make it through security, and find the member’s office.
  • Follow up immediately (same day if possible) after your meeting with an email to recap your meeting and provide any resources that may have come up.
  • Be polite and thank them for their time.

Additional resources about interacting with Congress

AAAS: 78-page guide to working with Congress as a scientist

AAAS: Top 10 Rules for Working with Congress

Developed in collaboration with Dr. Dan Pomeroy, manager of MIT’s International Policy Lab.

Criteria for success

  1. Bottom line up front. Start with your most important recommendations.
  2. Provide relevant, concise background. Don’t assume policymakers or staff have any previous knowledge of the topic. Catch them up to speed as briefly as possible. What is the issue being briefed and what is the significance of it to the reader? The more direct the significance, the more effective the memo.
  3. Prioritize evidence that will support your recommendations or conclusions. What factors affect the topic?
  4. Implementation and Recommendations. Provide a blueprint for the implementing your recommendations. Be as specific as possible.

Structure diagram

Purpose

A policy memo can either provide a concise summary of information relevant to a policy maker, or a policy recommendation for them to implement. It is also possible to provide multiple options for the policy maker to consider implementing. If multiple options are provided, you will want to discuss the pros and cons of each option and give the policy maker the context needed to select one.  

Your work or the issue you’re writing about is likely broad and complex, with a great deal of nuance. In a policy memo, you must distill your issue down to the most important points to a single page that a policy maker can use to make a decision.

Skills

Anticipate reader behavior and organize the memo for the audience

If given limited time to review a document, many people will skim for headers and section title or read the first sentence of paragraphs to determine the paragraph’s importance. Anticipate the reader’s behavior to increase the impact of your memo:

  • Divide the memo into sections and use the headers to convey the main point of the section. If describing the importance of government healthcare programs in West Virginia, use a section title like “23% of West Virginians Rely on Medicare for Health Insurance” instead of “Importance of Medicare in West Virginia.”
  • Don’t bury the most important point of your paragraph by building up to it. Put the most significant point of a paragraph in the first sentence and use the rest of paragraph to support or expand on the point.
  • Use separate paragraphs and spacing for each important point so they do not get missed by the reader. It should look more like a sectioned summary than a continuous essay to increase readability.

Use figures and tables only where appropriate

If you find it necessary to provide a large amount of numerical data, consider if tables or figures may be more appropriate. Listing data in text form can be overwhelming and can obscure the main point being presented. Conversely, use of complicated or unnecessary tables can confused readers and detract from the effectiveness of the memo. Give only the information that is necessary but be ready to provide the full source for any data provided.

Think about the take-away from the data (individual values or trends) and what format most accurately conveys the main point. The best format will vary depending on audience, data, and major points being made.

Example:

Option 1 – Text with data

“The past 5 years have seen an increase renewable generation in New England. In 2011, renewable sources generated 7261 GWh of power, representing 5.6% of annual generation. In 2012, renewable generation increased by over 10% to 8000 GWh of power and represented 6.2% of the 128000 GWh of electrical generation on the New England grid. The amount of renewable generation has continued to grow in both total output in GWh and percent of total generation every year since 2011, increasing to 7.7% of total generation in 2015 with a total generation of nearly 10000 GWh.”

Option 2 – Text with table

“The past 5 years have seen an increase renewable generation in New England. Table 1 shows how renewable energy generation has grown in both total output in GWh and percent of total generation since 2011.”

Table 1. Annual Renewable Generation on New England Grid

Year Total Generation (GWh) Renewable Generation (GWh) Total Percent Renewable Generation Annual Renewable Generation Change
2011 129163 7261 5.6%
2012 128081 7991 6.2% 10.1%
2013 129377 8752 6.8% 9.5%
2014 127176 9358 7.4% 6.9%
2015 126955 9747 7.7% 4.2%

Option 3 – Text with figure

“The past 5 years have seen an increase renewable generation in New England. Figure 1 shows how renewable generation has increased as percent of total generation since 2011.”

Figure 1. Growth of Renewable Generation as a Percent of Total Generation in New England 2011 – 2015.

Option 4 – Text with take-away

“The past 5 years have seen an increase renewable generation in New England. While total renewable generation continues to increase (7.7% of total generation in 2015), the yearly growth of total renewable generation is slowing.”

References:

Wilcoxen, Peter – http://wilcoxen.maxwell.insightworks.com/pages/275.html

Frakt, Steve- http://wws.princeton.edu/admissions/wws-blog/item/policy-memo-writing-tips

NE-ISO Annual Generation Statistics from 2015

Developed in collaboration with Dr. Dan Pomeroy, manager of MIT’s International Policy Lab.

Criteria for success

A successful op-ed…

  • Provides a strong, provocative opinion
  • Focuses on a clear, single issue
  • Is both important and timely
  • Supplies facts and anecdotes that support the main message
  • Avoids unnecessary technical jargon
  • Leaves the reader a memorable take-away message

Structure diagram

Identify your purpose

The opinion pages in newspapers and magazines (and their equivalent in online outlets) are often among the best-read sections of a publication. As such, writing an opinion piece is an opportunity to reach a massive audience and influence the conversation of the general public. Further, decision-makers also see these opinions; politicians and their staff track opinion editorials, as do executives and higher-ups at companies, nonprofits, and think tanks. Thus, an op-ed provides two mechanisms for influencing public policy: indirectly by placing an issue for the public to consider, and directly by appealing to these decision-makers.

As a researcher at MIT, you’re an expert in your field at a highly respected institution. You’re a prime candidate to write an op-ed, particularly on topics that influence or are influenced by your research projects, program, institution, field – or, importantly, your professional and personal experiences. Newspaper and magazine editors want strong opinion pieces from experts whom their readers will consider both highly credible and passionate about a topic. And you want to write an op-ed because it can magnify the societal impact of your work and field.

Analyze your audience

The readership of news outlets varies significantly, e.g., the NY Times demographic is quite different than that of the Kansas City Star. To even get past the paper’s editor, your piece needs to cover a topic that’s important to the paper’s readers. Then to be effective, you need to connect with those readers (or at least the ones important to your strategic goal). You can appeal to their values, ethics, emotions, etc.

For example, if you’re writing an op-ed advocating for science funding and targeting a paper with a conservative audience, you can appeal to their readers’ values and ethics by focusing on how scientific research benefits their local industries. As another example, if you’re writing an op-ed on the importance of net neutrality, you can immediately appeal to your readers’ emotions by reminding them how infuriating it can be to deal with internet service providers.

Plan your writing process

Prior to starting the writing process, consider the following questions that will help direct the content and style of your op-ed.

Questions to consider Why is it important to consider
1. Is the point you want to make important and timely? Pieces that provide a provocative opinion to recent news, an upcoming event, or alternatively an important topic going under the radar have the best chance at being placed. Through your piece, you’ll need to convey your opinion’s importance and why it’s important now.

You’ll also have to emphasize importance and timeliness when pitching your piece to an editor.

2. What is your strategic goal for writing the op-ed? Having a strategic goal will help direct your approach and content. Are you looking to inform the general public about an issue? Then appealing emotionally through personal stories might be an effective strategy. Are you looking to influence policy makers? Then maybe emphasizing the effects policy decisions will have on the economy and their constituents is the right move.
3. What information do you have, particularly related to your expertise, that supports your point? A strong opinion and passionate writing will make your piece effective, but your credibility will get your op-ed published.  Drawing on your professional knowledge and training, and particularly your personal experiences as they relate to your main point will separate your piece from the dozens of others pitched to an editor.
4. What are the best arguments against your point, and how can you refute them? A highly effective strategy in writing a persuasive op-ed is to preemptively address the counterarguments to your point, and refute them with powerful and poignant facts. By doing this, you increase the credibility of your op-ed in the minds of people who may otherwise be swayed by these counterarguments, while simultaneously providing your base with talking points to these counterarguments.
5. Are all of your points factually correct and supportable? Above all, you need to ensure your facts are correct. Bigger papers will almost certainly fact-check your piece and may ask you for supporting material. Even if they don’t, it’s your credibility that will take a hit if your piece contains inaccuracies. Similarly, your piece needs to be original, including being distinct from your own previous writings (that is, do not self-plagiarize). Lastly, you should always disclose any conflicts of interest, financial or otherwise, to the paper’s editor.

 

Skills

Show your passion with descriptive language and narrative.

Don’t use an academic argument: Regulations to reduce mercury are needed to protect tribal populations because of higher fish intake from subsistence fishing and unique cultural practices.

Do use a compelling story: In the rainy Pacific Northwest, tribal populations spend much of their time on boats hunting swordfish, shark, and king mackerel to feed their families and for use in cultural rituals. Unfortunately, mercury levels in these fish are putting the health and safety of their community in serious jeopardy. The federal government needs to take vulnerable populations like this into account when developing mercury regulations.

Use active voice (i.e. active verbs).

Active: This experience convinced me that we need to support science.

Passive: I was convinced by this experience that we need to support science.

Turn numbers or statistics into specific and easy-to-understand references or examples.

Difficult to understand: Since the pre-vaccination era, the estimated annual morbidity rate in the U.S. decreased from 530,000 to 70.

Easy to understand: Thanks to vaccinations, death from measles has been virtually eliminated in the U.S.

Avoid jargon and acronyms

Jargon-filled: “Nonintrusive load monitors can disaggregate total energy use by appliance.”

Jargon-less: “Advanced smart meters can tell you how much energy each of your appliances use.”

Avoid clichés – they dilute your message

Examples: “It’s not rocket science,” “is the holy grail,” “avoid like the plague”

Submitting Your Piece

Prior to submitting your piece, make sure the op-ed meets your target paper’s formatting requirements (word length, etc.) and read their submission instructions. As a general rule, only submit your op-ed to one publication at a time. If your piece is extremely timely, you can provide a time limit for consideration in your cover letter, after which you plan to submit the op-ed to another paper.

When submitting, the body of the email should contain a succinct paragraph establishing why the issue is important, why their readers care, and why your expertise and/or experiences qualify you to write this piece. After this paragraph, provide a brief (1-3 sentences) bio, your contact information (phone number, email address, and mailing address), and the wordcount of the piece (both the full length and length including the title and bio).

An example pitch is provided below.

After submitting, follow-up with a phone call to the editor. Be prepared to pitch it directly as they may have missed the email. Leave a message if he or she does not answer. Do not incessantly hound them, but it is ok to send follow up emails or phone calls if you have not heard back after a couple days.

If you do not hear back from the editor in 10 days or your op-ed is rejected outright, try another paper, or you can shorten it and resubmit your piece as a letter to the editor (might be a different editor). While shorter, letters are still very visible.

Example Pitch

Hello,

I’d like to submit an opinion piece on the March for Science happening next Saturday 4/22.

I am a CT native, PhD physicist, and currently manage Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s International Policy Lab. The goal of this piece is to explain why, as a scientist, I am joining the March for Science, how science impacts CT, and to urge others to join. I am hoping it can be placed this weekend or sometime next week, just ahead of the March.

The piece is exclusive at 641 text/691 with title and bio notes. Happy to make any needed edits.

Home address: XXX
Phone: YYY

Thank you for your consideration,

-Dan
[op-ed pasted below and attached]

Further Resources

  • Writing an Op-Ed – From the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), this article provides key points to consider when writing an op-ed as well as three examples of science focused op-eds.  The article is a part of their larger Communication Toolkit provided under the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science & Technology Program.
  • Op-Ed Writing: It’s OK to Argue for Something by Brooke Smith & Sarah Sunu from COMPASS.  In addition to providing tips and resources for writing op-eds, the authors also link to several scientist-authored op-eds featuring a wide variety of arguments.
  • Ten Steps to Writing an Op-Ed by Joanne Omang, free-lance writer and former Washington Post reporter. Provides insight into the necessary components of an op-ed from an editor’s perspective along with her “ten steps” you should consider prior to writing your op-ed.
  • Op-Ed and You by Trish Hall, Senior Editor, New York Times. Provides an editor’s perspective on “what makes the cut” out of the “flood” of op-eds submitted to the New York Times every day.
  • Writing Op-Eds– From the Union of Concerned Scientists, this article provides information on the basic structure of op-eds and gives concrete tips towards optimizing your message and improving your chances of having your piece placed.
  • The Op-Ed Project – Started as a social venture aiming to increase the number of op-eds from women and other underrepresented experts. The website provides tips for writing an op-ed, guidelines for pitching your op-ed to an editor, and information on op-ed submittals to leading news publications.

Developed in collaboration with Dr. Dan Pomeroy, manager of MIT’s International Policy Lab.

Policy makers are busy people who are often juggling many different projects and priorities at any given time. They are constantly bombarded with policy recommendations from competing constituencies with a diverse set of perspectives. Therefore, most do not have the time to develop deep subject matter expertise or even create original policy proposals. Instead, they focus on being able to quickly learn subject material so that they can evaluate external requests and decide which should be acted on.

When presenting to an audience that is busy or distracted, you must communicate as effectively as possible in the limited time or word count available. Follow the recommendations below:

Research your audience

To do effective outreach to policy makers, it is important to understand what they care about and what motivates them. Look up specifics such as their voting record, position within an organization, past statements on the topic, etc. Learn as much as you can about their agenda, why this topic is important to them, and whether you expect any pre-conceived biases or opinions. Then be sure to formulate your argument in terms that will resonate to them, which is often not the same as what motivates you.

Be concise and specific

  • Put your bottom line up front: Policy makers often evaluate the utility of a conversation or document within the first minute. Instead of slowly building to the main conclusion, as you would in an academic paper, it is best to lead with what you want them to do or know and then work backwards from there.
  • Be clear and concise: Policy makers tend not to read documents longer than a single page or listen to a talk longer than 15 minutes. Make every word count.
  • Make recommendations specific: The easier you can make it for a policy maker to implement a recommendation, the more likely it is that they will act on it. The best recommendations are the ones that tell a policy maker exactly what they should do the moment they walk out of the meeting, all the way through to the final implementation.

Write for a non-technical audience

  • Avoid discussing research methods: Policy makers are not peer reviewers. Therefore, they are unequipped and uninterested in evaluating how you performed your research. Use what little time you have to focus on the results of your work and the implication for the audience.
  • Find the right analogy to explain the data: The less you can rely on numbers to make your case, the more compelling it will be. Spend time to develop clear analogies to explain complex topics, or use a specific story that exemplifies the data you want to convey.
  • Eliminate jargon and acronyms: Each academic field uses very precise language that is generally only understood by people within the field. Therefore it is important to translate your work into simple language that can be understood by the target audience. Also, watch out for words that have a different definition in your field than they do in the general population. For example, “work” has a definition in physics that is completely different from the general definition.

Rehearse your pitches and presentations

Typically you will only get one short chance to convince a policy maker on an issue. Make it count by rehearsing until the words flow naturally.

Night Before

  • Pick out what you’re going to wear.
    • Choose something comfortable. Do not wear new heels for the first time, a shirt that you have to keep adjusting, or a skirt that you have to keep pulling down.
    • Remember that you may have a microphone. We recommend a top with buttons or a collar that the mic can be clipped to, and pants or a belt that the transmitter can be hooked on.
    • Wear layers. It is common for large rooms to be too hot or too cold, so be prepared for either.
    • Double-check for stains and iron if necessary.
  • Back up your presentation on a USB just in case.
  • Pack your bag for the next day.
    • Computer and any necessary accessories (slide changer with working batteries, charging cables, adaptors, USB with your presentation)
    • An energy bar or other light snack
    • Business cards for networking
  • Go to bed early.
  • Set an alarm (or two) to make sure you wake up on time.

Morning Of

  • Bring your own water bottle (in case there’s limited access to water).
  • Eat a light breakfast. Or if you’re too nervous, pack a snack for after your talk.
  • Avoid foods and beverages that may tighten your vocal chords or dry out your throat (e.g. dairy products, cold drinks, orange juice, and carbonated beverages).

Before Your Session

  • Arrive early.
  • Say hello to the session organizer and work with the room technician to:
    • Make sure your computer connects to the projector and your presentation looks good under the lighting. Test any special graphics or movies.
    • Ask for a microphone if you want it.
    • Find an outlet for charging your computer if necessary.
  • Figure out where you want to stand while you’re presenting.
  • Use the restroom.
  • Meet and greet the audience. This shows that you’re approachable and you may learn something you can weave into your talk.

Before Your Talk

  • Five minutes before your talk, move to a standing position (in the back of the room or backstage). Shake out any nerves you might have. This will give your body a chance to warm up and get adjusted before you get on stage.
  • Go through the first minute of your talk in your mind. Knowing exactly how you’re going to start gives you confidence and enables you to make eye contact with the audience as you begin, helping to create a powerful first impression.
  • Calm your nerves.
    • If you start getting any panicky feelings, focus on slow, deep breaths.
    • Smile. Smiling increases endorphins and helps replace anxiety with calm and confidence.
  • Bring your water with you to the podium.
  • After getting up to the podium, take a deep breath and focus. Sometimes getting set up can add last minute distractions, so take a moment to ground and collect yourself.

Answering Questions and After Your Talk

  • When you hear a question, wait patiently until the questioner has finished speaking. Then repeat the question and take a breath before answering. This timing will allow other audience members to understand the question and will give you some time to formulate a cogent, coherent response.
  • Take your mic off before walking away and don’t forget your water bottle.

Criteria for Success

  1. Identify the strengths and weaknesses of your delivery.
  2. Practice with the intention of improving specific aspects of your delivery.
  3. Become more comfortable with the delivery of your presentation.

Identify your purpose

Whether you are pitching a business idea or communicating your research, practicing can make the difference between your audience counting how many times you said “umm,” and understanding (or funding) your research. Creating a manageable practice plan will decrease the amount of time and stress involved in preparing, help you feel good about your presentation, and, ultimately, increase the quality of your presentations.

Skills

Identify the most important areas to improve

Since there are many aspects of public speaking that you could work on, it is important that you spend your time practicing the aspects that will improve your talk the most. In order to decide which aspects of your delivery are most important to improve, we strongly recommend that you take a video of yourself presenting. In doing so, you can analyze the verbal and nonverbal aspects of your presentation independently and will become aware of your presentation habits.

Taking the video

Record 5-10 minutes of your presentation in a format that will allow you to view it easily afterwards. The recording device should be placed in the middle of the room and should record both your movements and your audio. If possible, it is great to get feedback from a trusted friend or colleague. Invite them to be a part of your practice session. You can also sign up for an appointment with a Communication Fellow to help work on your public speaking. After taking the video, follow these steps and answer these questions:

  • After recording, but before watching:
    • How did it feel while you were presenting?
    • What do you think you did well?
    • Is there anything that you wish you did better?
  • While watching the video:
    • Take notes on things that you notice
      • Things you do well
      • Things that may be distracting
    • Are there any points when your attention starts wandering?
  • After watching the video:
    • How do you feel after watching?
    • Was there anything that was distracting to hear/see?
    • Did any of your feelings change after watching the video?
      • Something that you thought you did well that you didn’t
      • Something that you wished you did better that was already good
    • If your attention wandered at any point, what was it about that section that lost your attention?

Analyze your verbal and nonverbal presentation independently

NONVERBAL

  • Rewatch the video, but mute the volume so that you cannot hear yourself
    • What do you notice about your nonverbal delivery?
    • How is your posture? Does it change throughout the talk?
    • Are any of your movements distracting? Moving too much? Too little?
    • Do you make eye contact with the (fake) audience? Did you spend too much time looking back at the screen?
    • Do you see any patterns throughout your presentation?
      • Repetitive movements or distracting habits
      • Something you do whenever you talk about a certain topic

VERBAL

  • Listen to the audio of your video without watching (Close your eyes, turn the playback device away, blackout screen, etc.)
    • What do you notice about your verbal delivery?
    • How was your voice? How was the volume? Were you clear?
    • How was your pace? Did you talk too fast? Too slow?
    • Did you alter your delivery strategically? Did rises and falls in volume/tone help emphasize your main points?
    • Was anything distracting or hard to follow? Filler words? Repeated phrases?

Now that you’ve become familiar with your habits (both good and bad) pick three areas that you think are the most important to improve. Think about what areas would help reinforce your message by eliminating distractions or emphasizing what is most important. With these things in mind, let’s determine an actionable plan for improving these areas.

Focus on the solutions, not the problems

Thinking about everything you shouldn’t do is overwhelming and can subconsciously make you more likely to do the very things you’re trying to avoid. Focusing on the solutions will help you deliver your presentation with purpose and allow you to connect with your audience. Using the three areas for improvement that you identified above, identify ways you can improve those areas and start practicing them. Your ways to improve should be framed in a positive light. For example, if you identified filler words as an area to improve, rather than focusing on not using filler words, try taking pauses whenever you notice you are using filler words. Don’t be afraid to try things that make you feel uncomfortable or seem extreme while you’re practicing. For more ideas of how to improve particular aspects of your delivery, see Verbal and Nonverbal.

Common Areas for Improvement Possible solution(s)
Use of filler words
  • Try replacing filler words with pauses
  • Become aware of when you use them
    • Record and watch yourself
    • Have a friend listen and stop or interrupt you every time you use one
  • Work on smoothing out your transitions
    • Helps you flow from one idea to another without needing to think as much
Looking at the slides rather than the audience
  • Practice without any slides
    • Helps you get used to looking at the audience
    • Makes you more familiar with content
  • Pay attention to something in the room you’re practicing in
    • Color of back wall, number of tables, etc.
    • Helps you scan the room and take note of something external
Excessive hand / body movements
  • Think about grounding your feet during your talk
  • Try hooking your thumb in your front pant pocket to reduce hand movement
  • Try presenting completely still
    • Helps you notice when you feel like moving
  • Practice doing a certain movement at a specific point in the presentation (walk during transition, etc.)
Talking too fast / mumbling
  • Practice talking at 50% of your natural pace
  • Practice emphasizing syllables/sounds
    • Especially true with difficult words
  • Speak in short sentences supported by small breaths to produce a smooth rhythm
  • Write in places you want to pause in your notes
    • Long pauses can help recapture the audience’s attention
Talking too quietly / not projecting voice
  • Practice speaking as if someone is in the back of the room
  • Ask the organizers for a mic
  • Try vocal exercises to project without yelling
Monotone voice
  • If you’ve lost sight of what excited you about your talk, find ways to incorporate what makes you passionate. This will naturally help your voice sound more engaging
  • Practice a couple sentences while varying pitch, tone, and intonation to give different meanings or find the right level of variation so that it’s engaging

Practice in manageable chunks

Practicing in manageable chunks will reduce stress and maximize improvement. Your brain can only truly focus on one thing at a time and it can be stressful to practice for long periods. Working on too many things at once or practicing for too long will limit the improvements that you can make in any one area.

We recommend practicing one solution at a time, but doing so a few times in a row. This will allow you to improve incrementally with each repetition. Once you start to feel comfortable implementing that solution, start working on your next identified solution. After you have practiced your presentation while focusing on each solution individually, you can start to combine them. They should come a little bit easier after practicing each one individually. To prepare for unexpected disruptions, try starting your presentation from random slides (or halfway through if no slides will be used).

You should build your practice plan and format your practice sessions based on what you can realistically stick to. Practice for lengths of time that can fit into your schedule. Practicing for shorter periods of time, but doing so more frequently can help break up these sessions and make them more feasible despite a busy schedule. One Communication Fellow mentally practices their talks on their walk home from campus (talk about efficiency). By visualizing the verbal/nonverbal aspects of his presentation while thinking about his content, he was able to practice his presentation without physically speaking or doing the movements.

Additional Resources

Common Challenges and Fixes for Verbal and Nonverbal Communication – An extensive reference table created by the BE Communication Lab