This fake news trick can be a force for good

Young woman looks sceptically at her phoneI’ve got a quick question for you.

How many people live in the Australian capital of Sydney? Is it two million? Five million? Seven million?

The answer, of course, is none of those. Canberra is the capital of Australia, not Sydney.

Well done if you spotted the mistake.

But if you didn’t, you won’t be alone. In fact, most people reading this newsletter probably missed it too.

That’s because of a mental shortcut we all use called the fluency heuristic.

Basically, the quicker we can process information, the more likely we are to believe it. And this rule of thumb plays a huge role in whether the document you write will be successful (or not).


Fake news

When I started this email, I hid false information in a sentence that was very easy to process: ‘the Australian capital of Sydney’.

Most people won’t have given it a second glance. Instead, they saved their brainpower for the harder part of the question: how many people live there?

This is a common strategy used by purveyors of fake news.

First, they hide a bogus premise in an easy-to-read sentence that many readers will skim over and just assume is correct. Then they blame their target (the Left, the Right, the Establishment, George Soros, Bill Gates …) for something that isn’t true anyway.


Fluency for good

Now, to be clear, I’m not suggesting you start filling your documents with lies just to get a reaction. (Seriously, don’t try this at home.)

But you can still use the fluency heuristic as a force for good. Because making your writing easier to process will help you build trust in your ideas, advice or expertise and bring about change for the better.


Make your writing fluent

Good writing is invisible.

‘It doesn’t draw attention to itself,’ explains my colleague Catie Holdridge in How to make your writing engaging. ‘It’s just a stealth vehicle for the message.’

With the best documents, you forget you’re even reading. They just sweep you along. And the writer’s ideas and recommendations magically materialise in your brain, with almost no effort on your part.

But the spell is easily broken.

Stumbling over a sentence that you have to read three times switches all your attention to the writing itself, instead of letting you focus on the document’s message.

Making your writing fluent means removing the friction, as I explain in Are your reports grinding readers down?

What are your experiences with the documents you see at work? Do they flow, or are they full of high-friction documentese?


Main image credit: FunKey Factory / Shutterstock

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