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Who tells the story: OpEd Project workshop shows faculty how to leverage expertise to shape public conversation

Public discourse is an ocean of infinite facts, interpretations, and people. The question most ask as they wade through it is whether something is true or false.

But the more compelling question is “who is telling the story,” said Katie Orenstein, founder and CEO of The OpEd Project, which trains experts in academia, corporations, think tanks, and nonprofits to be thought leaders in their fields. Orenstein visited U-M recently to help faculty leverage their expertise and shape the public conversation.  

“When we think about who shapes history, to me the most important question is who’s telling the story,” she said.

The workshops and an open session with Orenstein was organized by the Office of the Vice President for Communications’ Michigan News department, which offers media training and promotes U-M research, major events, expertise, and programs to audiences around the world.

The event aligned with U-M President Mark Schlissel’s public engagement focus, which encourages faculty to apply their knowledge and talents to help solve society’s greatest challenges.

“We feel it is our duty and responsibility to talk about what’s going on out there in the world,” said Michigan News Director Laura Lessnau.

An author and journalist, Orenstein founded The OpEd project to elevate the diversity of voices in the public sphere. She noticed opinion writers were, and still are, overwhelmingly male. One of the primary reasons? Those pitching opinion pieces were overwhelmingly male.

It occurred to me the obvious solution is to get more smart women pitching,” she said. “You can’t win a game you’re not playing.”

Her interactive exercise focused on how to position oneself  as an expert, which is the first step to becoming an influencer.

But it’s not always easy to balance displaying expertise with humility, particularly for women. Studies show that men who share their accomplishments are seen as more likable, but when women and people of color do the same they’re seen as less likable. That leads to women and minorities not sharing their “shiny baubles” as often, she said.

“The question to ask yourself is ‘what would it allow me to accomplish of value to share my shiny bauble,’” she said. “Let the driver be an awareness of your potential impact on others.”

Some of the key takeaways to establishing credibility as an expert:

  •  Use numbers, such as years of experience or number of publications and citations. Some people have a tendency to lowball their numbers, but it’s important to quantify your highest, accurate number.
  •  Be bilingual in terms of using jargon and plain language. Jargon is OK to use in doses. It gets a bad rap, but it allows you to speak accurately and quickly about a specific subject. The trick is knowing when to switch gears to plain language. “If you can only speak in jargon then the jargon owns your knowledge, not you. And you won’t be aware of the knowledge that exists outside your field.”
  •  Don’t underestimate the power of personal experience. This is often seen as “soft,” or people think it will make them look biased. But it’s a powerful credential.
  •  Like jargon, pigeonholing has its use. It allows you to be specific about deep expertise in an area. But once established you can step out of the pigeonhole and have wider influence.

Orenstein said that creating a wider variety of influential voices in media and policy is a solvable issue. That’s why The OpEd Project helps experts find where they can have outsize influence.

“So many of us are working on what I call ‘forever problems,’” she said. “Social justice, when will we accomplish it? Poverty, when will we abolish it? But within this there are solvable problems. Being in this room together we can be part of one of those eminently solvable problems.”

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— Terry Kosdrosky, communications manager for public engagement