Writing to Persuade: Insights from Former New York Times Op-Ed Editor Trish Hall

The Behavioral Scientist shares scientific research, with articles largely written by the researchers themselves. They are experts in behavioral science but often not trained communicators. In this Q&A with Trish Hall, my hope is that there are valuable insights for both aspiring and veteran writers who hope to write effectively, for the Behavioral Scientist or for broader lay audiences.

As the New York Times op-ed editor, Hall was a driving force behind the Gray Matter column, which from my perspective was one of the most important outlets for behavioral scientists to share their findings and perspective with the world outside academia. Her new book, Writing to Persuade, contains many invaluable insights for accomplishing this goal.

Dave Nussbaum: Your book, Writing to Persuade, was written for a broad audience based on your experience as the New York Times’ op-ed editor, and that includes guiding writers all the way from your own readers to Angelina Jolie and Vladimir Putin. Is there anything specific you’d say to someone who is writing about scientific findings—something that doesn’t necessarily draw on their life or experience—but is based on research?

Trish Hall: I think they should write about the people they know and their daily life, so the people they know would be interested in it. Basically what editors want and what readers want is to learn something they don’t already know, and they want to feel like it matters. A lot of scientists and psychologists are doing work like that—work where a lot of people would be interested in the results if they knew about them.

One of your key pieces of advice in the book is to get people to listen to their audience. How do you think differently about writing for the New York Times and writing for the Behavioral Scientist, where you have two very different audiences?

It’s hard to believe sometimes that people outside your field know so little about your field. But even with an audience like the Times, where there’s a lot of college-educated people, I think you have to assume that people know nothing. They might just be generally smart people whose expertise is in a completely different area. So you can’t use jargon, you can’t make assumptions about what they know, and you can’t start off with some incredibly complex thought that’s going to make them go “ugh!” You can be sure the audience is intelligent, but you can’t be sure they’re educated in the subject.

What readers want is to learn something they don’t already know, and they want to feel like it matters.

You have a really interesting take on the importance of facts: that they matter, but not nearly as much as we would like to think. Scientists are in the habit of arguing with facts and trying to let them speak for themselves.

I actually have to blame scientists for that. I always felt, as a human being and a journalist, that facts` were everything. You don’t go into journalism without feeling like facts change the world, and you don’t go to work at a place like The New York Times without being very careful with your facts. But when I started reading the research that had been done on the psychology of persuasion, it became very clear that most research shows that facts alone will not change people’s minds. Emotions and feelings are just as important, probably more important. So there’s this weird aspect of it that you can’t get someone to stop smoking just by saying it’s bad for you. You can’t persuade people just by giving them facts—you have to understand where they’re coming from, and you have to tune into that feeling emotionally.

The other thing about facts is that you can’t get your facts wrong. If you do, and your editor doesn’t save you, then people will be outraged. You will be dismissed by people as not knowing what you’re talking about. So you need to be accurate in order not to lose your audience, but you can’t count on facts to fully persuade people.

When I started reading the research that had been done on the psychology of persuasion, it became very clear that most research shows that facts alone will not change people’s minds.

Do you have any thoughts about balancing the authority you have as a scientist—“I’ve evaluated the data and it has led me to these conclusions”—with trying to maintain a solidarity with the audience and not putting too much distance between you?

I think you need to show what your authority is. If you’ve done some studies, you need to make it clear what was involved in those studies and what people did not know before and what they know now. You need to claim credit for having found something. But if people come across as arrogant or condescending it’s going to show up in their writing.

Another challenge for academics is that they like to hedge—they don’t want to claim anything they don’t have the proof nailed down for, which leads them to come off a little wishy-washy.

Academics are in the world of ideas and research, and they know there’s always more to know. I think it’s very difficult for them to give opinions or make it sound like something is known when there are still unknowns, but when you’re writing for the general public you kind of have to do that. It doesn’t mean you have to distort your own research by saying it’s all settled, but you have to have some kind of conclusion or it won’t mean anything to anyone.

Let’s return briefly to the problem of jargon—would you say always avoid using jargon?

Some pieces you can’t write without using the scientific term, but scientific terms are different than jargon. Jargon is sometimes shorthand or a way to avoid being specific, whereas scientific terms are very specific. With scientific terms, sometimes you have to use them, but if so then spell out what they mean. In general, though, a lot of it could be avoided.

What do you suggest when a scientist is writing an article but is missing that compelling anecdote that makes the topic concrete or real for people. How do you bring the idea to life or make concrete the idea that you’re trying to get across?

Somewhere in there there’s bound to be a story. Why is the person pursuing the research in the first place? Sometimes that’s where you find the story. Why do you care about this, why do you think it’s important? Sometimes that can propel the story. I think there is always a story.

I was kind of shocked at how hard it is to persuade people.

The book has a whole section on the science of persuasion, but from the perspective of an expert practitioner, where do you think the gaps are? Are there any studies that you would love to see done?

When I started in op-ed, I wasn’t familiar with all the psychological research on persuasion. I read most of it after I stopped being the op-ed editor and I was kind of shocked at how hard it is to persuade people. And I thought, “Was I doing all that for nothing, and does no one ever change their mind?” So I found this political science professor at Yale named Alexander Coppockwho was trying to figure out whether op-eds work and he found that they did—they don’t move the needle dramatically but they were persuasive. People who read them were persuaded to some degree—but he didn’t know why.

The thing that struck me in the research I read: a lot of it is applicable one-on-one, thinking about how to talk to someone about some conflict you have, but in terms of writing, he didn’t know exactly what made those op-eds persuasive. So I’m curious what exactly in an article might change people’s minds. I think it’s on people’s minds a lot now because of all the “fake news.” I wish I had known exactly what in those op-eds had been persuasive—is it the emotion, is it the storytelling, is it the facts, does it depend on the audience?

There’s your challenge, behavioral scientists. Let’s get to work.