Skip to main content

Say something surprising: How to publish creative commentary that advances your position

The marketplace of ideas is crowded and gets busier every day. I edit a lot of content. People send me op-eds (which some news outlets have switched to labeling “commentary” or “guest essays”), social posts, statements and speeches. While I am paying attention to if the content sounds compelling or is an ode to jargon, I am most often looking to answer one critical question: Will it get and keep attention?

Cliches and jargon, like “There is no silver bullet,” “Now more than ever…” and “It’s a win-win” will not capture audiences.

Saying really obvious things.

That sounds… obvious, but it happens often. As soon as someone says “there is no silver bullet,” readers check out. “No silver bullet” is always followed by a really complicated description about why something is so difficult to solve. People are looking for illumination and they are about to get something muddled. Instead of saying there is no silver bullet, try a positive and unexpected framing, like “there is a promising direction” and elaborate from there. If you say something we aren’t expecting, you get our complete attention. And isn’t that what you want?

Author Tania Luna explains why this is. When we are surprised, our brains go into a “surprise sequence.” It starts by telling the brain to pay attention, be in this moment. Now the brain is on a “find” mission. It is filled with curiosity. The brain sequence then goes to shift where literally the brain is open to shifting its perspective. Pretty cool? But not if you say things it expects in which case the brain goes about its business and there is no change in thinking.

Regurgitating what we all know rather than advancing the conversation.

When I review guest columns for clients, I almost always cut the first paragraph. I call this the regurgitate paragraph. It is where someone tells me all the background about an issue which I already know. For example, someone who wants to suggest a way to build back better, doesn’t need to repeat how bad the pandemic has been for people. We all know this. We are living it. As I read, I am thinking: Why is this person telling me what I already know? It is both boring and it is insulting because it underestimates the reader’s knowledge and experience. Persuasion content like speeches and op-eds should advance conversations. Start your next speech by writing out bullet points of all the things your audience already knows about the topic you are addressing. Now start where the list stops. Build on what they know rather than repeat  it. Use it as a springboard to say something new.

Using sterile language rather than visual language.  

Often, we use a lot of words that fail to make our issues more compelling, instead deadening them. In social change organizations, we communicate to motivate people. This means painting a picture that creates meaning in our minds and using language that connects emotionally and viscerally. Let’s see this play out IRL.


The South Branch of the Gale River was blocked by a 21-foot-high concrete and earthen dam and was a complete barrier for fish and disrupted natural riverine processes. Removal of the dam was a priority as measured under several river connectivity prioritization methodologies and will restore connectivity to approximately 15 miles of river above the dam and approximately 21 miles of river downstream of the dam.


There was a zombie dam on the Gale River and removing it freed the river.

By using a term like “zombie” this sentence is packed with meaning. We understand the dam is not good. By using a term like “free” we are suggesting that is did a lot of good for the river and let’s the river do what rivers do best. I know you are thinking “where is the nuance?” It is hopefully in the scientific paper that was completed to drive this smart policy decision. But the nuance doesn’t need to be on the webpage for conservation-minded members of an environmental organization. What they need communicated to them is that when we take out zombie dams, rivers flow freely and that is what they should advocate for and support with donations.

I am a big fan of the “yes and ….” philosophy behind improv. You can be serious and surprising. You can be accurate and visual. You can communicate and command attention, and you can advance your issue by talking about it in a new, unexpected and compelling way.

This entry was posted on Monday, October 4, 2021 at 10:11 am and is filed under Communication planning, Ethical and visual storytelling and Media relations. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.