A fluid writing style is similar to a trustworthy face on a politician: it can’t completely blindside the audience into believing everything it says, but it subconsciously makes them want to.
This isn’t about being bamboozled by silver-tongued sophistry. It’s about the way that the brain makes judgements beyond your control before you’ve even had time to notice them.
As Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains in Thinking, Fast and Slow, our brains operate on a two-tier speed system. The first involves snap judgements that, the brain presumes, require no interrogation. When we assess in microseconds whether someone is being hostile, or when our hand moves automatically to switch on the light as we enter a room, this is “System 1” thinking.
In these situations, our brain is confident that its instincts and judgments are correct, and so it sees no reason to burden us unnecessarily with “System 2” thought processes. This type of thinking would require considerably more mental effort as well as total concentration, limiting the number of things we can do at once. Reverting to the fast, mechanical instincts of System 1 ensures that our brains can stay as productive and alert as possible.
Although learning a new idea involves System 2 thinking, things that are totally ingrained in us do not. When, for example, an English-speaking person hears the start of the nursery rhyme “Baa Baa Black Sheep…” it’s almost impossible not to immediately think, or even sing, “…have you any wool?”
The same goes for poetic and lyrical structures. You may never have heard the poem “There was an old man of Kilkenny…” but you know instinctively that the rest will follow the familiar rhythm of a limerick. When we hear a new song on the radio, we often instinctively know where the tune is headed next or when the next rhyming couplet is due. If we’re wrong, it jars us into closer attention.
While far more subtle and insidious, the same is true of prose. Rhythm and structure create an illusion of logical development that carry us along with a line of argument, just as powerfully, if not more so, than the content itself.
Take, for example, this pertinent extract from a 1776 draft of George Mason’s Virginia Declaration:
All men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural rights, of which… they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; among which are the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.
From a technical perspective, there is nothing wrong with this passage, in that it makes sense and contains no spelling or grammar mistakes. However, the prose is clunky and dense, the sentence is over-long and you’d have trouble recalling the exact wording if you tried to quote it later. This means that, to take it in, your brain needs to engage System 2 thinking.
This change of gear also means that you have to look at the text closely and are more likely to start analysing if the argument actually works. You could find yourself thinking, for example: “Really? In 1776, in the slave-owning southern states of the US, all men were born equally free and independent? And if a man’s inherent natural rights to life and liberty cannot be removed under any circumstances, where does that leave prison sentences, or capital punishment, or conscription? Where is your evidence that buying a house or being happy is a “natural” right and, if it is, how will you safeguard it?”
In short, by hindering the natural ease and flow of System 1 thinking, the structure of the sentence invites us to challenge the argument itself.
To see the truth of this statement, we only have to compare the extract to a far more famous iteration of the same idea. A few months after Mason’s draft was published, the passage was purloined by Thomas Jefferson, who transformed it into the single most memorable line in America’s Declaration of Independence. After extensive tweaks, the new version looked like this:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Stirring stuff. Memorable stuff. And why? Because of its structure. The iambic lilt of the opening phrase, the use of words that rarely exceed two syllables and – most importantly – use of the “rule of three” make this extract extremely easy for us to understand, almost without engaging our powers of analysis at all. It contains rhetorical devices that imitate the natural flow of speech, while the ease with which the argument builds, structurally and aurally, creates the illusion of watertight logic.
When looked at closely, the argument here is no stronger than in Mason’s version. If anything, it is more sweeping (how are these truths self-evidenced, for example?). Nevertheless, the brain likes and trusts it more because of the way it sounds and, today, most Americans can complete the phrase, “life, liberty, and…” in an involuntary, unthinking microsecond. Perhaps you just did so as you read this sentence. You can’t help it. Jefferson’s writing style appeals to our System 1 thought processes and so, when it comes to convincing his audience, he is already halfway there.
So, how does this relate to your writing style? Well, writing an article, presentation or blog post is simply about building an argument. The response you get is your audience’s assessment of how convincing and well-supported this argument appears to be. Even the most expert of audience members are, like the rest of us, human, and while they spend their days more deeply engrossed than most people in System 2 thinking, this does not make them (as Kahneman himself showed in a series of experiments) any more immune to the power of System 1 than the rest of us. Writing in a way that makes use of the rhetorical devices we have looked at here will make you sound confident and assured, and can make a decent argument infinitely more compelling.
Sadly, most posts and presentations are not very well written. They are, like Mason’s declaration, densely and clumsily constructed, with too many clauses and lashings of jargon. They drift towards complex language and grammatical structures because their writers presume this will make them seem more authoritative. In fact, as we have seen, this works against them.
The most convincing argument is not one that’s dressed in difficult language. It’s one that flows so well we barely realise we’re being convinced.
Next time you come to write a script, presentation, blog post or other written content, remember this: no matter the scenario, simpler will always seem smarter.
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