Bold Communication

[...] good writers don’t flaunt that anxiety in every passage they write; they artfully conceal it for clarity’s sake.

— Steven Pinker, Why Academic Writing Stinks

Here's a big problem in our mental firmware: we trust and follow people who sound confident. We are more likely to believe things to be true when we hear them from a zealot than from a moderate.

Many smart people sound less confident when they speak. They are more likely to understand that the truth is nuanced, and to know the limits and caveats of their statements, so they feel they need to anticipate and disarticulate every possible objection to each sentence they say.

When smart people write, it's no different. When novice writers begin their journey, they want to make sure that every sentence in their essays is true. In this pursuit, they often employ sentences such as "I firmly believe", or "it's my opinion that", hedging their words. Of course, this style of writing is painful to read, since an essay is essentially an exposition of the author's opinions. Another tell of the lack of commitment to one's words is the extensive use of the passive voice.

I have often noticed this phenomenon in smart people who value truth. Sadly, even when they are certain of a position, they fail miserably to convey it. It's not enough for them to convince people of their point of view, they want to speak the truth, even when it means making their statements more confusing. Confusing arguments kill persuasion. This never happens to lawyers.

Why do we follow confident people? They are clear. They provide straight and concise answers, and that's what people are looking for. Life is messy and we don't have time to do our own research on every topic. That's why religion is so popular. When we go to the doctor, for example, we expect her to tell us what to do without overwhelming us with information. We ignore much of the rest, such as the probability of a wrong diagnosis or the side effects of the prescribed medication. Sure, credentials help doctors have credibility, but one of the main reasons we trust them is because of the way they sound. When talking to us, they are not rambling about a million things we don't care about or pondering about their thought process. They tell us only what we need to know.

So here's the simple solution: smart people need to adjust their style and sound bolder. I am convinced that most of them are unaware of the fact that confident people are easier to trust.

I think that's one small step for a man, but it might be a giant leap for mankind eventually.

— Neil Armstrong, but full of doubt

There's nothing wrong with bold statements. Bold communication is more efficient and persuasive, even if it's less precise. A simple answer is often the right move. Making bold statements matters, so let's spread the word.