Strategies for using indirect language patterns with intention
When writing to communicate expertise and authority, you want to avoid language that makes you seem uncertain. My previous post here described indirect speech patterns that make you seem less confident or knowledgeable when they creep into your written words.
However, indirect speech isn’t all bad.
Indirect statements and expressions of uncertainty are useful for:
- Communicating accurately about uncertain situations
- Inviting collaboration or input from others
- Observing social conventions or hierarchy (not appearing“bossy”)
Here’s the dilemma: You want to appear authoritative and confident in your writing, yet need to use these invaluable communication strategies.
What’s a writer to do?
Express uncertainty with intention—confidence, even.
Don’t let hesitation and indirectness become your default writing style. Use these patterns with intention when they meet your needs. Here are some strategies for communicating intentional uncertainty.
Explore the causes of your uncertainty
Search for any of “hedge” words or phrases (kind of, some, may, perhaps) and consider why you’re using them.
Is the situation explicitly uncertain or difficult to nail down? If so, be explicit about the unknown.
For example, if you are forecasting a future event, you cannot be sure of the outcome. Perhaps the situation involves information inaccessible to you. If I were writing about marketing on Amazon, I might say, “Amazon does not reveal how its algorithms work, but experience so far suggests…”
In academic writing and other situations in which accuracy is essential, communicating uncertainty will earn credibility, rather than diminish it. When you disregard conflicting evidence that your audience knows, you will lose their trust.
Are you uncertain about something you could find out but haven’t? If that’s the case, you might want to either do the homework or tell the reader where to find the information.
Are you using indirect language or hedging your bets out of a general feeling of unease? Identify what’s bothering you and fix it. If you’re still uncertain, try using the next practice: stating the odds.
Express certainty in probabilities
This piece of advice comes from Annie Duke’s excellent book Thinking in Bets. Duke is a retired poker player with a psychology background who studies risk and decision-making.
She suggests that you express confidence in percentages, as if you were wagering: I’m 70% confident this is the right decision based on the facts available to me.
Using this approach leaves the door open for other people to contribute information that might change your confidence level.
When working in groups, this strategy invites collaboration and defeats the “group think” that happens when everyone converges on the opinion of the first person to speak. Duke writes,
Uncertainty not only improves truthseeking within groups but also invites everyone around us to share helpful information and dissenting opinions.
Give advice without being bossy
What if I told you to never, ever, use semi-colons in your writing?
Chances are that you’d protest, even if you haven’t used a semi-colon since college. You’d think I was overstepping my bounds. You might dig in and start using semi-colons to revel in your independence.
No one likes losing their sense of control over their actions (or agency, in psychological terms.)
In the book The Influential Mind, psychologist and author Tali Sharot describes why it’s important not to boss people around when you hope to influence them:
When people perceive their own agency as being removed, they resist. If they perceive it being expanded, they find it rewarding.
Using indirect language respects the reader’s agency and improves the odds of the reader following advice.
The trick is not appearing wishy-washy or weak. “You could do this…” does not inspire confidence or action.
Try changing the actor in the advice from the recipient to yourself. Instead of telling someone what to do, share with them what you would do: Here’s what I would do in your situation … and this is why…
You can then write with great confidence about the situation and your take on it, without appearing uncertain or indecisive. The recipient of the advice is free to take or leave it, but you have expressed confidence in your opinions.