Best Practices for Public Policy Analysts

by on April 2, 2019 · 0 comments

Over the years I have been asked to speak to colleagues and students I work with about best practices for preparing testimony, public interest comments, opeds, speeches, etc. A few years back, I jotted down some miscellaneous thoughts and used these notes whenever speaking on such matters. I did another session with some GMU econ students today and someone suggested I should publish these tips online somewhere.

So, for whatever it’s worth, here are a few ideas about how to improve your content and your own brand as a public policy analyst. The first list is just some general tips I’ve learned from others after 25 years in the world of public policy. Following that, I have also included a separate set of notes I use for presentations focused specifically on how to prepare effective editorials and legislative testimony. There are many common recommendations on both lists, but I thought I would just post them both here together.

CONTENT BEST PRACTICES: Never bury the lede & hammer your key point(s) repeatedly

  • Get your key point up-front. We live in a world of information overload and limited attention spans. No matter what it is you are producing (opeds, papers, speeches, testimony, and even books), it is vital to get the message up front. Do not be so arrogant as to assume people care about what you have to say or are willing to spend much time thinking about it. As you begin any project, write down your thesis or key takeaways and make sure it is in the first few lines of your publication or remarks. And then end by repeating that point to drive it home. Do this in all your writing and speaking. Make it a habit of mind.
  • Repeat, repeat, repeat! Never be ashamed to repeat what you’ve said before. Again, people are really busy and will have very limited time to devote you and your arguments. Just because you said something brilliant once doesn’t mean anyone heard you the first time around, or that they remember it. In fact, don’t be afraid to self-plagiarize a bit. If you spent a lot of time coming up with brilliant arguments and excellent messaging, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Reuse your key arguments and talking points again and again. Hammer them home.
  • Use lists. People love lists. They help focus their thinking. They love Top 3, Top 5, and Top 10 lists in particular. I begin almost every speech and testimony by saying, “There are 3 things I want you to remember about this issue,” and people always start jotting down whatever I say. It’s like magic! I also wrap up by briefly reiterating that same list of key takeaways/conclusions in case they missed them.
  • Repurpose your work and publish variations constantly. Use a modular “building blocks” approach to your policy outputs. Think of your work like Legos that can be stacked in many different ways. Every product you create is really multiple products that can be aggregated, disaggregated, and then re-aggregated in different ways and in different formats. (See options in graphic below and think about how your main message and talking points can be used across the entire range of outputs).

MARKETING BEST PRACTICES: Build your own brand & know how to target your audience

  • Don’t wait for others to promote you; promote yourself. Think of yourself as a brand that needs to be promoted and then figure out how to be your own advertising agency.
  • Do some of your own outreach. Every analyst should do some of their own outreach, particularly to the academy, contacts they have built up over the years, Cap Hill, Executive Branch, press, the academy, etc.  This can complement efforts by outreach and communications departments in your organization.
  • Have lists of people that you want to consistently push your work out to.  If you quote someone in a paper, journal article, book, or article, highlight it and send it to them.  This greatly increases the chances they will cite you and your work in the future.  
  • Know the “connectors” in your space (i.e., the people who know everybody in your circles and have a huge following) and get your work on their radar screen.
  • Stay active on social media platforms (e.g., blogging, Twitter, LinkedIn, FB, etc.), at least as much as you can tolerate before the jerks get you down. In particular, use social media to constantly remind people of relevant work you have done when you are at other events or even just listening to other speeches.
  • Use multimedia to communicate your message in creative ways beyond boring slide shows (e.g., YouTube, podcasts, or other video and audio services. Even animated videos can help).
  • Plan ahead and try to be first-mover out of the gate. There is a huge value in being first out with commentary when your topic hits the news; that value drops rapidly if you are second and third out of the gate.
  • “Tease” your own forthcoming work. While working on paper or new project, alert relevant parties it is coming; seek their input. Also consider doing a couple “teaser” blog posts or short essays alerting others that your paper is coming.
  • Post all your major publications on major document hosting sites such as SSRN and ResearchGate, among others.
  • Tag your work. Good SEO (search engine optimization) is vital to making your work easier to find. Use embedded keywords (take the 20 -30 most important keywords in your document and then paste them in the “properties” or “keywords” section of your Word documents, PDFs, SSRN uploads, and blog posts.)
  • Use anniversaries to your advantage. If there is a special day or anniversary coming up that you can hook your work to, take advantage of them.  

PERSONAL BEST PRACTICES: Get organized & de-clutter your life & brain

  • Develop talking points files for major issues you cover to help you remember your main points in an instant in case you get random media or policymaker calls and can’t remember everything you wrote 5 years ago on a topic.
  • Develop a good system of organizing your work. Keep hyperlinked lists of your major publications to easily repurpose elsewhere. Also, using Evernote (web page clipping service) combined with Dropbox (cloud-based document storage that syncs with all your computers & devices) can be a very useful way to organize your work and retrieve it quickly in the future. It helps to develop a sensible filing taxonomy to organize all your work.
  • Learn which communications to ignore. Do all those emails or social media messages have to be answered right away (or at all)? As important as it is for you to engage with others across multiple mediums, it is also important to figure out who and what can be safely ignored so that you can actually get some thinking and work done! (Ex: I only check work emails twice a day. Most stuff can wait.)
  • Find your “magic hour.” Different people work better during different parts of the day. For me, I get more quality writing done between 9 to 10 am each day than I do most of the rest of the day. Whatever your “magic hour” is, make it sacred and block out all other distractions to maximize your productivity when you are at peak output potential.
  • Develop your own style and voice.Examine the approaches others and learn from them, but don’t get too hung up on trying to perfectly mimic them. Develop your own approach that fits your comfort zone. And practice, practice, practice! Get some speech training in particular. Public speaking is difficult for many analysts.
  • Communicate with conviction but courtesy. It is easy to start screaming when you are passionate about policy issues. Restrain yourself. Treat people and their arguments (no matter how silly) with a certain degree of dignity. You will do a better job demolishing bad arguments with reason and empirical analysis than with sarcasm and shouting. You will also be respected as a better person for taking the high road, even by many of your intellectual enemies.



3 Specific Tips for Crafting Good Opeds & Testimony
by Adam Thierer

Here are 3 simple rules to live by when crafting good opeds and congressional testimony. Before reading them, it is vital to never forget one simple truth: People are busy! We live in a world of information overload and limited attention spans. So:

  • Why should anyone care about your issue or argument relative to any other?
  • What key point should they remember about it?
  • How does it affect them or others they care about?

Keep those questions in mind at all times as you are preparing opeds or testimony. Accordingly:

  1. Don’t bury the lede:
    • Tell your audience right up front the most important takeaway (or takeaways) from your article/testimony. Even consider telegraphing it with a line like, “The most important thing to remember about this issue is _______.”
    • Alternatively, make a short list. People love lists! (ex: “My message here today can be boiled down to three simple points: ______”) As soon as you say that line, watch how people grab a pen and start writing down what you say. [See an example here.]
  2. Keep it simple / speak clearly
    • Use clear, jargon-free “family dinner table” language. Pretend you are writing a letter to your grandma and want to make sure she can understand what the hell you are talking about but without being condescending. You want to impress people with your intelligence, but you don’t want to overwhelm them with it.
    • Metaphors are particularly helpful and create lasting mental images. Fun example: “Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.” – P. J. O’Rourke.
    • Keep the narrative tightly focused on bolstering your 1-3 key points. Do not go off on wild tangents.
    • Make sure you reiterate your key point (or points) at the end. Remember, people are busy and their minds are cluttered (especially policymakers). Thus, they are only likely to remember one or two key themes. You have to hammer them home and dispense with much of the supporting evidence. (For testimony, put supporting evidence in an appendix. For opeds, very briefly summarize it. Better to focus on one big number or result as opposed to dozens of statistics.)
  3. Honor word count / time limit:
    • Most opeds can only be about 700 words, and most testimony is capped at 5 minutes. Do not exceed those limits.
    • For opeds, edit and re-edit multiple times and then ask friends and colleagues to proof them to cut words and tighten language.
    • For testimony, rehearse your remarks out loud multiple times until you are 100% certain that you will not go over and get cut off before you are finished. In my experience, I can get out about 990 words in 5 minutes, but that is really pushing it and I am a very fast talker. Better to shoot for under 950 words and speak at a normal pace.

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