You’re not as smart as you think you are

The Economist‘s review of Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach’s The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone illuminates an important principle: People often have strong opinions about issues they understand little about. And on social media, surrounded by like-minded friends and followers, opinions are reinforced and become more extreme. It is hard to reason with someone under the illusion that their beliefs are thought through, and simply presenting facts is unlikely to change beliefs when those beliefs are rooted in the values and groupthink of a community.

Humans struggle to explain basic inventions like a bicycle, but still manage to navigate the world with ease.


A matter of style

Every company needs a style guide. And everyone employed by the company needs to know about it.

As the name implies, a style guide is a compendium of rules for language usage at a particular organization. It can (and should) include everything from the correct spelling of the company name to guidelines for appropriate descriptions of minority group members.

I’ve worked at publications that create their own guides from scratch, sometimes running 200 pages or more. But most places do just fine with an existing style guide supplemented by a list of exceptions and words specific to the organization.

In the United States, the most popular guides are the Associated Press Stylebook, favored by journalists and other language-forward types, and the more traditional Chicago Manual of Style. If you write for an international audience, check out The Economist Style Book, which offers a handy section on Americanisms and has the added advantage of being free.

Whichever guide you choose, your company should have a frequently updated, regularly circulated list of addenda to make sure all employees—especially those responsible for external communications—are on the same page.  I’ve been called in to compile these lists, often after some publicly embarrassing incident, and I can tell you that employees desperately need them.

One-minute book review: Made to Stick

There are a lot of great books on business writing. In case you’re too busy making a living to read them all, I will occasionally offer one-minute summaries of work by well-known authors.

Today, Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.  Expanding on Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, the authors offer six concepts that will raise your communications above the pack: 1. State it simply. 2. Use concrete examples. 3. Establish yourself as a trustworthy source. 4. Appeal to your audience’s needs. 5. Destroy  preconceived notions.  6. Tell a story.

I’d encourage you to stick with the first four in everyday communications—you can splash out with the last two when you pitch something. If you have time for the book, it’s an entertaining read.