How writers make text feel more believable

How do readers and consumers decide what is truthful and trustworthy?

In a busy world awash with fakery and counter-claims, how do human beings decide what’s believable and what’s not? (And how is it that sometimes seemingly outrageous untruths can pass as believable if they’re told in a certain way?)

We could attempt to rationally analyse every piece of information we come across in a day. But if you started your day researching the ingredients on your cornflakes packet, there’s a strong chance you’d still be at the breakfast table at 2pm.

So instead, we all have a kind of believability algorithm hardwired into our thinking. In text, if this algorithm detects any of the following traits, we are all programmed to feel the information it describes is more believable…

Easy-to-read, interesting text feels more believable

The fluency heuristic describes the phenomenon where people ascribe greater value to information that requires least effort to recall. So if the information you’re sharing is memorable, it’s likely to feel more truthful.

Phrases that rhyme feel more factual

Information presented in easy rhyming format is more likely to be perceived as truthful than non-rhyming information. This phenomenon is called the rhyme as reason effect or Keats heuristic. The reasons why we trust rhyming information above non-rhyming info are not completely clear. It may be because we all learn rhyming aphorisms like:

An apple a day keeps the doctor away

Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight

A stitch in time saves nine

And we feel that at a deep, intuitive level these things are probably true (and who knows, maybe our forebears also sensed that if they made these pearls of wisdom rhyme, they’d be easier to remember and use). But in lab conditions, people consistently tell researchers they feel that rhyming information is more accurate and believable than non-rhyming info.

Famous examples of the rhyme as reason effect include:

If the glove doesn’t fit, you have to acquit

Do the Shake ’n Vac and put the freshness back

Repeated similar sounds make information feel more plausible

Another aspect of the rhyme as reason effect is using repeated sounds. Alliteration is when you use similar sounds in a sentence – like Pick up a Penguin (p-p-p). Assonance means repeating vowel sounds – like Juicy Fruit (oo-oo). And sibilance is a type of alliteration that involves repeating soft sounds – like It’s not just food, it’s M&S food (s-s-s-s).

Psychologists believe that because these techniques make information more memorable, we therefore perceive it as more truthful – and even as more wise.

A note on tone: Repeating hard sounds gives the tonal effect of “cheap and cheerful” (You can’t get quicker than a Kwikfit fitter). Repeating vowel sounds can sound gloomy, nostalgic or melancholic (Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness). Repeating soft sounds, on the other hand, feels luxurious and indulgent (Celebrating the world’s greatest love stories).

Repeated information is more likely to be believed

The familiarity mechanism means that the more you hear a piece of information, the more convincing it can sound. So you’ve heard over and over that Ryanair is cheap. So the first thing you think when you hear Ryanair, is the word “cheap”.

This is because when your brain is doing its split-second “is this believable?” scan, it searches for corroborating evidence. If you’ve heard the statement before, your brain will see a pattern and your “yep, feels completely believable” response will be triggered.

But you need finesse to pull this one off. You have to be clear enough with this kind of repetition for it to be memorable… but if you overcook it, you’ll sound phony. Teresa May’s “strong and stable” is a good example of ham-fisting this kind of repetition.

Information presented with personality feels more credible

Human beings have a deep-seated fear of killer robots. Apparently, while we’re happy with the decisions machines make, we inherently distrust the ways they think in order to reach those decisions. I think this is one of the many reasons that consumers are so turned off by bureaucratic and corporate speak.

People tend to favour emotional, human thinking – even if the results aren’t as good. What does that mean for communications? It means a personality-packed Boris or Nigel can be perceived by a casual observer as being more believable – and forgivable – than a more bureaucratic colleague.

The converse can also be true. A group of scientists that produce the most credible, trustworthy product can completely fail to convince the public because they sound robotic in all their communications.

So what does all this mean?

It means that if you’ve got a great truth to share, you can maximise its impact by using the right language.

It also means that if you want to double-check your hardwired truth-checking algorithm, you can look for the things that might be making you feel a piece of information is credible… even when it really isn’t.

Want a hand telling your great truth? You know where to find us…