In the battle to cut through the noise and change how people think about things, there's one old-fashioned communication strategy that still works: Op-ed articles. 

According to a new study led by Alexander Coppock, an assistant professor at Yale University, op-ed essays have a noticeable and lasting effect on the views people hold toward a range of issues. 

"We found that op-ed pieces have a lasting effect on people's views regardless of their political affiliation or their initial stance on an issue. People read an argument and were persuaded by it. It's that simple," Coppock told a writer at Yale News recently.

Coppock and his research team surveyed 3,567 people through an online tool. Participants in "treatment groups" were shown one of five op-eds that had been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, or Newsweek. The articles advocated libertarian policy positions on issues such as climate change, federal spending on transportation and infrastructure, and instituting a federal flat tax on income, according to Yale News.

The researchers then tested participants' immediate reactions to the op-ed pieces and surveyed them again 10 and 30 days later, comparing their responses to those of participants in the control group, which were not given an op-ed to read.

The researchers performed the same experiment on a group of 2,169 "elites," including journalists, law professors, policy-focused academics, think tank scholars, bankers, and congressional staffers, writes Yale News.

In both experiments, people exposed to op-eds shifted their views to support the argument presented in the piece. While 50 percent of people in the control group agreed with the views expressed in a given op-ed, 65-70 percent of the people in the treatment groups expressed agreement with the op-eds' authors immediately after reading the pieces, Coppock told Yale News.

So how to write an op-ed that sways minds? Bret Stephens shared several practical tips for doing just that in an essay he wrote last year in The New York Times. A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who spent several years at The Wall Street Journal before joining the editorial team at The Times last year, Stephens shared 15 tips for the aspiring op-ed writer. Here are five of them:

1. Write for the ordinary subscriber.

"The ideal reader of an op-ed is the ordinary subscriber --a person of normal intelligence who will be happy to learn something from you, provided he can readily understand what you're saying. It is for a broad community of people that you must write, not the handful of fellow experts you seek to impress with high-flown jargon, the intellectual rival you want to put down with a devastating aside or the V.I.P. you aim to flatter with an oleaginous adjective."

2. Offer an opinion.

"The purpose of an op-ed is to offer an opinion. It is not a news analysis or a weighing up of alternative views. It requires a clear thesis, backed by rigorously marshaled evidence, in the service of a persuasive argument. Harry Truman once quipped that he wished he could hire only one-handed economists --just to get away from their 'on the one hand, on the other' advice. Op-ed pages are for one-handed writers."

3. Write to inform.

"An op-ed should never be written in the style of a newspaper column. A columnist is a generalist, often with an idiosyncratic style, who performs for his readers. An op-ed contributor is a specialist who seeks only to inform them."

4. Advance the discussion.

"A newspaper has a running conversation with its readers. Before pitching an op-ed you should know when the paper last covered that topic, and how your piece will advance the discussion."

5. Be brief.

"You're not Proust. Keep your sentences short and your paragraphs tight."

Published on: Apr 25, 2018
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