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Your customers are profiling your content. What does your writing say about you?

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In the CBS crime drama “Criminal Minds,” FBI profiler and resident genius Spencer Reid frequently analyzes written material such as ransom notes or blogs as he looks for insights into the minds of both victims and perpetrators by analyzing the way their writing lays bare their intentions without their knowledge. While his fellow agents engage in the more physical aspects of criminal investigations, Reid instead profiles language.

While covering up the sort of acts committed on “Criminal Minds” is not the concern of most business writers (I hope), the idea of writing containing unintentional markers of psychological states is an important point to consider. In my last blog, I looked at the idea of strategic use of obfuscating language to mask deception and poor performance. Now, I’d like to look at how even complex psychological states can be determined by the analysis of written material that contains inadvertent linguistic markers.

The fields of discourse analysis and corpus linguistics have produced many fascinating studies that demonstrate how our writing provides a remarkably accurate profile of our mindset. Scholars such as Paul Rayson, James Pennebaker, and Jeffrey Hancock, to name just a few, have shown how language analysis can be used to

  • identify psychopaths
  • diagnose trauma, and even
  • predict romantic compatibility.

On the less dramatic side of things, these approaches can also show us when our writing might contain what we think are signifiers of honesty but are in fact subtle indicators of psychological distancing. For example, Pennebaker has shown that excessive use of the pronoun “we,” while seemingly suggesting inclusion and connection with the audience, often suggests instead that the speaker is unconsciously distancing themselves from the actions being described (Chung and Pennebaker, 351). This use of the royal “we” (a common occurrence in much business and marketing language) defeats the intention of creating a sense of social bonding and instead shows the writer avoiding agency and responsibility.

Why does this matter to us? It shows that when left unconstrained, our writing can convey our attitudes, doubts, and even deceptions whether we want them to our not. It also shows that these psychological states can be detected and measured, and that they almost certainly have an impact on how our writing hits our audience.

The lesson here is this: if you want your writing to have maximum utility with minimal room for unintentional mixed messages, you need a writing standard that considers how your audience reads and interprets information, not one that simply makes it easier for authors to push out more  content. After all, super-genius FBI agent Spencer Reid might not be profiling your writing, but your customer sure is.

Bibliography

Chung, Cindy and James Pennebaker. “The Psychological Functions of Function Words.” In K. Fiedler Ed. Social Communication. Psychology Press, New York: 343-359.

Hancock, Jeffrey T. et al. “Hungry Like the Wolf: A Word-Pattern Analysis of the Language of Psychopaths.” In Legal and Criminal Psychology, 2013: 102-114.

Rayson, Paul. “From Key Words to Key Semantic Domains.” In International Journal of Corpus Lingustics, Vol. 13, No. 4, 2008: 519-549.


About the author
Graham Freeman small
Graham Freeman has 10 years of experience in writing, editing, research, and communication and is currently a content transformation specialist at Precision Content Authoring Solutions. Graham is a key resource on the company’s large content transformation projects and the company benefits from his exceptional analytical mindset and attention to detail. Graham received his PhD in Musicology from the University of Toronto, so around the office he goes by “Doctor Graham”.

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