EWA National Seminar: How to Tell a Compelling Story
Today’s post features guest blogger Mandy Zatynski of The Education Trust, who attended EWA’s National Seminar at Vanderbilt University in Nashville earlier this month.
Thanks to the prevalence of blogs and other communication platforms, education writing now reaches beyond daily journalism and includes advocates, researchers, and almost anyone who has an interest in education and the desire to opine.
But that doesn’t mean all of it is good.
It takes talent and practice to make the sometimes-wonky world of education policy and reform intriguing. Beyond that, competition is high: The education field has become so saturated with thoughtful writers that it’s difficult, in some respects, to cut through the chatter. That’s why storytelling, the ability to weave a narrative through a nuanced policy concept, is imperative. It brings often-complicated topics to life and illustrates for reader — rather than telling them — how policies impact educators and students.
“We have unparalleled opportunities to not just advocate, but to explore these stories and to tell them,” says Robert Pondiscio, who won a 2013 award from EWA for his piece, “’No Excuses’ Kids Go to College,” a feature that looked at charter school students and their transitions to college. He was speaking during a session at EWA’s National Seminar with other award winners from the education expert categories, who shared their best tips for telling compelling stories.
Lisa Guernsey’s advice? Be fair, be evidence-based, and be measured in your writing. The former journalist now directs the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation, which won Best Blog in EWA’s national awards. She says it was “tricky,” switching from a newspaper environment to the policy sphere, where writers have to assume more authority in their prose—and that makes it all the more important to fact-check yourself. As writers carve out expertise in specific issue areas, it’s sometimes easy to fall back on stock phrases or oft-cited statistics without much thought. That’s dangerous, Guernsey said. “Ask yourself, ‘Do I really know that when I write that?’ ‘Do I really know that’s the case?’”
New America’s blog launched last year and morphed three blogs (on higher education, early education, and the federal budget) into one, in an attempt to streamline and better promote their work from pre-K through college. Writers include former journalists, employees from the department of education, and researchers, who all now work at New America. “We rely on our use of data, pulling it out to make it understandable to the policy world,” Guernsey said. “And that leads to a much more dynamic place to read about these issues.”
Beyond engaging prose and user-friendly delivery, writers must also ensure relevancy in their work. Anthony Cody, a former-teacher-turned-blogger, says writers in education should know what other people are writing about, whether they agree or not. “To stay relevant, really immerse yourself in the discourse and what folks are saying,” said Cody, who won first prize for his continuing coverage of the Common Core State Standards. Cody spends a lot of time in his social networks, reading other writers’ work and hearing from educators still in the classroom. “I look for ways to elevate other people’s voices and perspectives,” he said. “We need to think, as writers, to not just tell our story … but to give other people opportunities to speak for themselves—rather than speaking for them.”
So immerse yourself, but be careful not to drown. It’s all too easy to get sucked into an online debate, in 140-character-increments, that devolves into personal attacks and misses the larger issue or reason for communicating in the first place. “You have to make a conscious decision: Do you want to get attention or do you want to be effective?” asked Pondiscio, a former teacher and now executive director of CitizenshipFirst.
It’s easy to choose words that will rile people up, but it’s more effective to articulate ideas that challenge readers’ world views. By thinking critically about issues, writers can build credibility and establish themselves as experts in a given field. “It doesn’t do any good to be a cheerleader,” Pondiscio says. “You have to do your own work critically.” He calls this the “sweet spot” for advocates who want to do this kind of work.