I’ll throw this out there as a thought. There might be something in it. There might not.
But a couple of years ago I read a book called Don’t Be Deceived: The definitive book on detecting deception. It draws on material like police interviews and court proceedings, analysing what words people use when they lie.
I didn’t read it because I felt I was being deceived to any great degree. I read it because I was interested in whether the words people used could indicate insincerity.
I figured that, if some words, phrases or sentence constructions unconsciously signalled that someone was fibbing, it would be a good idea to avoid them when I wrote copy.
Returning to the book this morning, I have to say I just don’t know. But here are some examples so you can judge for yourself.
A phrase with an unusual word order can indicate insincerity or deception. Take this phrase of OJ Simpson’s, written at the time of his murder trial:
Unlike what’s been in the press, Nicole and I had a great relationship for most of our lives together. Like all long-term relationships we had a few downs and ups.
Surely that should be ‘ups and downs’? Was Simpson really saying there were more ‘downs’, when he clearly wanted to give the opposite impression?
Use of articles
Whether you use definite or indefinite articles can be revealing. This is a statement from a man who said he had been robbed at a cash machine.
I was walking away from an ATM machine when a man asked me if I knew what time it was. I told him I did not have a watch. He then pulled out the gun and told me to go back to the machine. We walked back to the machine and he made me withdraw $200 from my account.
Note how the man didn’t mention the weapon until he said ‘he then pulled out the gun’. Because he is telling a lie, he is drawing his story from memory. In his mind he has already introduced the gun into the story – but he hasn’t actually done so and the use of the definite article gives him away.
Vocabulary that rings alarm bells
There’s a fair amount of this, so let’s take a couple of examples.
Question: “What did you do last night?”
Answer: “Actually, I went to the movies.”
Here, the used of the word ‘actually’ indicates the person responding is comparing his story of going to the movies with something else – i.e. what he was really doing.
In the next example, a burglary suspect is asked what he was doing at the time a robbery took place.
“I was bowling with Joe.”
Instead of saying “Joe and I were bowling” or “Me and Joe went bowling”, the word ‘with’ indicates the suspect is unconsciously putting distance between himself and Joe – probably because his story isn’t true.
The book covers plenty of other verbal markers that can indicate someone is lying. They range from use of the passive tense – i.e. “The gun went off” – to statements that tell of emotions at the height of an incident, rather than after it has happened.
But whether they’ll be much use in writing copy, I don’t know. What I do know is this – if you try and write copy for a product or service you don’t believe in, many readers will pick up on your insincerity.
Actually, that never happens to me…