I’ve been reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. It’s great! Kahneman is not quite as funny and entertaining as Dan Gilbert, but he makes a huge amount of fascinating research understandable. And the guy won a Nobel Prize, so you’ve got to give him props for that.
He has a brief section about how to write a persuasive message. It’s related to the concept of “cognitive ease” vs. “cognitive strain”. Cognitive strain makes your brain work harder, forcing you to move from System 1 to System 2, in his terminology. If you want people to believe you, you want to minimize their cognitive strain. He says:
The general principle is that anything you can do to reduce cognitive strain will help, so you should first maximize legibility.
This seems undeniably true. I read a lot of rèsumés, and if I had one piece of advice for job seekers, it would be: Don’t use 10-point Times New Roman! It’s hard to read! Especially for people over 40! The harder I have to work to get through your life story, the less I’m interested.
Here’s another obvious rule:
If you care about being thought credible and intelligent, do not use complex language where simpler language will do.
And he cites a Princeton study showing that “couching familiar ideas in pretentious language is taken as a sign of poor intelligence and low credibility.” The study’s amusing title is “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly.”
Why don’t people understand this? The rèsumés I review are usually from writers, and I can’t tell you how many of them say “utilize” instead of “use,” and use “author” as a verb instead of “write.” And of course there is the endless repetition of buzzwords like “leverage” and “synergy.” How does that help their cause?
Here are a couple of other, less interesting rules Kahneman cites from research:
- In addition to making your message simple, try to make it memorable. A study showed that aphorisms that rhymed were more likely to be taken as insightful than when they did not.
- If you quote a source, choose one with a name that is easy to pronounce.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that people will believe something nonsensical just because it rhymes, or is written in a nice font. But it helps. There is also probably something of a halo effect in play, which Kahneman doesn’t talk about in this section but brings up elsewhere in the book. If something is beautifully written, your admiration for the writing will probably leak over into a stronger willingness to believe what the writing is about. That’s something I worry about; see my post on Ayn Rand and Malcolm Gladwell.