Telling the Truth So People Believe It’s True

Dr. Jason Bull is a fictitious TV trial science psychologist, but there is nothing fake about his advice on the need to the tell the truth – and to tell it effectively.

Dr. Jason Bull is a fictitious TV trial science psychologist, but there is nothing fake about his advice on the need to the tell the truth – and to tell it effectively.

It is not enough to tell the truth; you have to tell the truth effectively.   – Dr. Jason Bull

Bull is a fictitious TV trial science psychologist, but his point about truth is well taken. In an age of fake news, you need more than truth or the ring of truth. You need truth well told and, better yet, truth well showed.

Consider climate change. There is a scientific consensus that climate change exists and is caused by greenhouse gas emissions. Yet many still deny climate change is occurring and carbon emissions are a culprit. Accepted truth is not enough.

Most issues are not as polarized as climate change. Yet, Bull’s admonition holds. As Bull says, if you want to persuade, you need to make your truth convincing. You need to tell the truth effectively.

One of the best ways to tell the truth effectively is to show the truth. Here are some ways to show the truth:

Fact-checking is an excellent example of showing what someone actually said. If someone denies making a statement, you can produce a video, email or tweet that contains the statement. By catching someone in a verifiable lie, you show that truth effectively. You also can fact-check the truth. If someone says you are wrong or making misleading arguments, you can show your facts that substantiate your claims.

Credible evidence is a way to show the truth. Evidence by itself may not be enough to convince the hard-core skeptic. You need validation by sources that skeptics trust. Even that may not be enough to change the most obdurate minds. You also need to demonstrate the validity of your claim in a manner that makes it hard for skeptics to refute. Simplicity is your best friend. Physicist Sean Carroll, for example, sums up global warming this way: Greenhouse gases caused by burning fossil fuels trap heat and warm up earth’s oceans, which store heat. 

Documentation of your truth can be invaluable. We think of documentation in terms of data, which can be convincing – if people can understand it, which isn’t always the case. Documentation also can mean showing what you are actually doing.  Shooting video or live streaming can be a convincing, even real-time way to show a company is undertaking a clean-up of an environmental spill.

Letting people see for themselves is a great strategy to overcome fear of the unknown. Something as simple as an open house can let people see what’s happening in a building with no windows. The perfect open house includes examples of how whatever is manufactured in the building is incorporated into products that visitors will recognize and perhaps use themselves. Cookies and punch underscore an atmosphere of openness.

Compelling content can inform the brain and touch the heart. People's emotional reactions often overrun what they think or believe they know. This is at the core of Dr. Bull’s admonition of telling the truth effectively. Put your truth in context. Show how your truth impacts people’s lives. To the greatest extent possible, project your truth from the lens of those you are trying to convince.

Tell your truth with confidence. Spencer Tracy described good acting as looking into the faces of other actors and telling the truth. If you animate your truth with confidence, people will be more inclined to believe you.

Use truth to inform, not deceive. Interestingly, advice on how to lie effectively involves telling the truth as much as possible. The best lie is the one that is mostly true. Another axiom for effective lying is to keep it simple and efficient, much like effective truth-telling. This is what makes fake news and deceptive speech so alarming – it is close to the truth or at least to plausible truth. As one lie-telling expert explained, “A lie should be like a bridge between truths.”  [By the way, there is a lot more available advice on how to lie and get away with it than there is on how to tell the truth effectively.]

Check your own facts.  When you become too comfortable that you are right, you can get lazy about your facts. Be rigorous on fact-checking yourself and be open to learning new information and confronting opposing points of view that may expose holes in your logic. Nobody has a monopoly on the truth. Don’t become an inadvertent fibber or a conveyor of half truth. Know your stuff. Be truthful with yourself.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.