The Op-Ed As A Platform For Storytelling

pirate op-ed nytCracking The New York Times, The Washington Post or a like target with an op-ed is not for the squeamish.

Your storytelling must be crisp, clever and ideally contrarian with a clear point of view (my high school English teacher would be pleased that I was paying attention to the alliteration lesson).

And after articulating the issue, the close must answer the question, “So what can be done?”

An op-ed titled An Old Scourge Needs a Modern Solution” in The New York Times/IHT last year provides a good roadmap on what it takes to craft a winning op-ed.

Let’s start with the subject matter.

It’s tough to go wrong with a pirate story – just look at Johnny Depp and the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise – particularly one that posits crime does pay.

Storytelling techniques bring the problem to life:

How do scruffy vagabonds as young as 16 overpower freighters and defy patrolling warships? And how, even when captured, do these modern pirates get away with their crimes?

Often, the author or the internal review process muddies the clarity of an op-ed by trying to cram too much information into the frame.

The author of the NYT op-ed, Peter Chalk at Rand Corporation, was kind enough to explain how he decided what content made the final cut:

I thought the most relevant (and interesting) information for the reader would be to explain how pirates get away with what they are doing. To many, the fact that this sort of thing goes on at all is a mystery. I just wanted to highlight that engaging in crime at sea is not that difficult and reflects the general unregulated and amorphous nature of the high seas.

At the 10K-foot level, here’s how Peter’s op-ed flowed: 

  1. Illustrate the pirate problem
  2. Support the problem with contrarian anecdote
  3. Deeper look at prosecuting pirates
  4. Piracy pays
  5. Ship owners play the odds
  6. Call for actions to solve the problem

Drilling down another level, this op-ed showcases the right content.

It tackled a broad topic with national or global relevance, packaging it as a problem.

The piece hangs off a compelling hook; i.e., piracy goes back hundreds of years but needs to be addressed by modern society (“crime pays” should not be a mantra anywhere in the world).

All is explained with vivid language and a close that articulates a specific call for action.

In fact, the closing paragraph shows how active language and understatement make for a more entertaining read:

Piracy is a crime at sea, but it starts on land. To thwart the Somali piracy career path, the world community should put funds toward protecting local fishing grounds and building a national coast guard capability in Somalia. Then its young pirates might take a different course.

Good stuff.

BTW, it’s worth pointing out that the piracy op-ed makes no mention of Rand Corp.

That’s key. 

Op-eds address issues, not companies.

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