Today's blog is a real eyeopener on a topic which, frankly, I missed in my book (see below), but which I will devote more time to in my forthcoming book. Concrete language is very important for good Netiquette and it is more believable as some studies have demonstrated. For those emails which are seeking to deliver a clear purpose or result, it is critical to be as concrete as possible. The article below is very good in the sense it encourages you to really think about what to write but also how you write it!
Why Concrete Language Communicates Truth
Published: 29 June 2011
Speak and write using unambiguous language and people will believe you.
I’ve just deleted a rather abstract introduction I wrote to this article about truth. The reason? I noticed I wasn’t taking the excellent advice offered in a recent article published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. That advice is simple: if you want people to believe you, speak and write concrete.
There are all sorts of ways language can communicate truth. Here are some solid facts for you:
- People usually judge that more details mean someone is telling us the truth,
- We find stories that are more vivid to be more true,
- We even think more raw facts make unlikely events more likely.
But all these involve adding extra details or colour. What if we don’t have any more details? What if we want to bump up the believability without adding to the fact-count?
Just going more concrete can be enough according to a recent study by Hansen and Wanke (2010). Compare these two sentences:
- Hamburg is the European record holder concerning the number of bridges.
- In Hamburg, one can count the highest number of bridges in Europe.
Although these two sentences seem to have exactly the same meaning, people rate the second as more true than the first. It’s not because there’s more detail in the second—there isn’t. It’s because it doesn’t beat around the bush, it conjures a simple, unambiguous and compelling image: you counting bridges.
Abstract words are handy for talking conceptually but they leave a lot of wiggle-room. Concrete words refer to something in the real world and they refer to it precisely. Vanilla ice-cream is specific while dessert could refer to anything sweet eaten after a main meal.
Verbs as well as nouns can be more or less abstract. Verbs like ‘count’ and ‘write’ are solid, concrete and unambiguous, while verbs like ‘help’ and ‘insult’ are open to some interpretation. Right at the far abstract end of the spectrum are verbs like ‘love’ and ‘hate’; they leave a lot of room for interpretation.
Even a verb’s tense can affect its perceived concreteness. The passive tense is usually thought more abstract, because it doesn’t refer to the actor by name. Perhaps that’s partly why fledgling writers are often told to write in the active tense: to the reader it will seem more true.
Hansen and Wanke give three reasons why concreteness suggests truth:
- Our minds process concrete statements more quickly, and we automatically associate quick and easy with true (check out these studies on the power of simplicity).
- We can create mental pictures of concrete statements more easily. When something is easier to picture, it’s easier to recall, so seems more true.
- Also, when something is more easily pictured it seems more plausible, so it’s more readily believed.
So, speak and write solidly and unambiguously and people will think it’s more true. I can’t say it any clearer than that.In addition to this blog, I have authored the premiere book on Netiquette, " Netiquette IQ - A Comprehensive Guide to Improve, Enhance and Add Power to Your Email". You can view my profile, reviews of the book and content excerpts at:
If you would like to listen to experts in all aspects of Netiquette and communication, try my radio show on BlogtalkRadio online newsletter via paper.li.I have established Netiquette discussion groups with Linkedin and Yahooa member of the International Business Etiquette and Protocol Group and Minding Manners among others. I regularly consult for the Gerson Lehrman Group, a worldwide network of subject matter experts and I have been contributing to the blogs Everything Email and emailmonday . My work has appeared in numerous publications and I have presented to groups such as The Breakfast Club of NJ Rider University and PSG of Mercer County, NJ.