Monday, April 9, 2012

Conveying Authority While Writing on Controversial Subjects

Recently I wrote about whether or not and how to host informational tea articles on tea company websites. One point I made in that article was that well-written informational articles can convey an impression of authority or expertise, which can benefit a tea company or other business.

In this article, I want to focus on the writing and research itself and explain how people can convey authority and expertise through writing. Merely knowing a lot is not enough to impress someone: you must find a good way to present your knowledge.

Conveying authority through writing:

I believe that well-written informational articles can convey an instant impression of authority. I tend to be inherently skeptical of unfamiliar authors, but even when I am completely unfamiliar with the author or publication, certain aspects about the way someone writes can impress me and lead me to perceive the person as authoritative in their subject. While I have a lot to say about writing, what constitutes "good" writing can be a bit subjective, and is a whole topic in and of itself.

I don't think of myself as a very good writer, but I do think I understand certain key points that a lot of authors miss. A lot of these points boil down to how and when to be careful about citing sources, and about how to present statements about potentially controversial material. I sum these ideas up with a simple concept that I'd like to call the danger zone.

Be aware of what society considers "common knowledge" when writing:

When writing about tea, I find it useful to think about the collective consciousness about tea in society at large, that is, the body of beliefs that is "common knowledge"; this does not mean that everyone knows all the facts in this zone, just that a lot of people know many of them. This body of knowledge is going to be different in different countries and cultures, and it will also be different when you write for different audiences; it's worth putting a bit of thought into the questions of who your audience is. For a tea company writing informational material about tea, your audience might be your customer base or pool of potential customers. But no matter what group you are considering, there is going to be a body of knowledge that most people know about tea, and material outside this realm.

And like any body of knowledge, this public tea knowledge is going to include both truths and falsehoods. I want to denote this knowledge by the following diagram:

As an example, the green zone might contain statements like "Irish Breakfast is a strong black tea." or "The Japanese drink mostly green tea." The blue zone might contain more esoteric statements like: "Huang Jin Gui, meaning golden osmanthus, is a type of Oolong tea produced from a specific varietal of the tea plant." The dark red zone, which is what I call the danger zone, contains common myths, like: "White tea is lower in caffeine than black tea."

Writing in the danger zone:

A key guiding principle in conveying authority, I have found, is to delve into the danger zone, but be most cautious in this zone. When writing in this zone, I find it is more important than normal to follow up your statements with citations to sources backing your points, and it is also important to begin the statements by presenting the "common misinformation". The goal is to connect your statement into the web of knowledge of your readers.

I find it useful to picture people's belief systems and knowledge about the world as a web of related ideas or beliefs, like the above diagram. Every person's knowledge includes true (green) and false (red) statements. Connecting with readers about true statements is easy, but if you write exclusively about true statements that people already know, you will bore your readers and lose your audience.

If you make a statement about some piece of knowledge in the danger zone without explanation, you may lose some of your readers, because they might think that you don't know what you're talking about. People have a natural tendency to evaluate new material presented to them by comparing it to the body of knowledge in their head; if the information doesn't fit, people become distrustful of the source. We all do this, and it's not necessarily a bad thing. But it's important to be aware of it when writing about a piece of information about which there is widespread misinformation circulating in society. Some examples of how I like to handle this:

  • (Regarding white tea) It is a widespread myth that white tea is lower in caffeine than other types of tea; there is no clear pattern of white teas being higher or lower in caffeine when compared to black teas or green teas. (Cite a source or link to a fuller explanation)

  • (Regarding the myth that green tea is the only "healthy" tea) Green tea received a lot of initial attention with respect to the health benefits of tea, largely for historical reasons: most of the early research on the health benefits of tea was conducted in Japan, where people drink almost exclusively green tea. Subsequent research has found evidence of health benefits of other types of tea as well, and there have been no thorough comparisons which have exhaustively established that green tea is any healthier than other types of tea.

These statements may not convince everyone, but I think that this approach is much more likely to do so than a mere assertion of some fact. And when you do convince someone, you have conveyed authority. People will come away from your writing thinking: "I just learned something new." and will attribute this to your writing, which makes it more likely that they'll come back for more.

What do you think?

Do you find this model for thinking about knowledge and writing to be at all accurate, useful, or helpful?


  1. This is interesting and important topic! Well, I'm afraid in tea there are many, many danger/vague zones :-p You know sometimes I hear things like "Chinese people all do it this way..." from either a Chinese or a non-Chinese, and the subject matter makes me feel that "how come Chinese I know don't do it this way... and I know pretty many Chinese..." I guess this happens on topics of Japanese, Indian and many others too. I guess for any tea culture, it's hard for anybody to know all different aspects and different perspectives of people in that culture. So it's important to keep an open mind and be aware of different opinions. I believe every of us has a good chance to fall into pitfalls of "danger zone" from time to time. But worse that that is standing on the ground of danger zone and thinking one's own information is the only accurate one.

    1. Those sorts of statements often send up red flags for me, especially when I'm reading them from someone who has any interest in selling me something or getting me to act in a particular way.

      I like it much more when people speak from experience. For example, if someone says: "Most Chinese people that I know do X." then I can't really object to that, it's their own personal experience, and if the Chinese people I know have done things differently, then it could just mean we have a different sampling of people that we have come into contact with.

  2. Nice, I agree. I also tend to use this model when teaching people about things in general. Put another way, learning happens when you inject just enough new information in with the comfortable/known/ challenge just enough preconceptions/ideas--but not too many, all at once, which can gradually be synthesized and layered. It's all about finding the sweet spot. Different for each person/audience.