We trust people who lie, in a roundabout way. Come again?
Recently, I read Ryan Holiday’s national bestselling book, Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator.
Holiday claims he made his living by manipulating the media, by distorting the newstelling. He did that by manipulating, distorting and spreading half-truths, and creating and promoting rumors that he knew to be false and then letting them enter the public’s imagination through blogs and other sources. Once respectable media picked up on the story—even if only to link to the blog without confirming or denying the accuracy of the information—the public often assumed it must be true.
Holiday says he wrote this book “Because I’m tired of a world where blogs take indirect bribes, marketers help write the news, reckless journalists spread lies, and no one is accountable for any of it.”
Now, Holiday wants people to understand how the media works.
If what Holiday writes is true, then all of us bloggers are manipulators to a certain degree. After all, we want to convince you of something—to do something, buy something, believe something, or even to not believe something.
According to Holiday, “Blogs must—economically and structurally—distort the news in order for the format to work. As businesses, blogs can see the world through no other lens. The format is the problem. Or the perfect opportunity, depending on how you look at it.”
What Holiday means is this: A blog writer has just a few seconds to hook the reader. The so-called “bounce rate” on blogs—the percentage of readers who leave the site without clicking any of the links—is very high. If we remember that the purpose of the blog is to promote an idea or sell a product or service, then a successful blog writer has to follow certain rules to decrease the bounce rate.
High on the list of rules to follow is to create a catchy headline. A great headline means that you are going to grab your readers’ attention, at least long enough for them to remain on the page and read the first line. Of course, the first line has to be catchy, too, if the reader is going to continue reading. And keep the paragraphs short. And always remember that readers are busy and have quite a few options when it comes to where they are going to spend their time reading. So the blog should not exceed a certain number of words.
I learned early in my career as a journalist that no matter how mundane or complex a topic may be, a good writer has to find an angle. For example, a famous actor becomes more interesting when the local newspaper highlights that he attended high school in town and was the one who spray painted something derogatory on the water tower at the edge of town the night before the homecoming game against the school’s biggest rival. Then you jump the story to page 4 because on page 5 there’s a full-page ad announcing a sale at the local department store. Good stories sell papers, and advertisers buy space so that readers will see their ads and ultimately buy their products or services.
As Holiday emphasizes, writers need to find not only the angle, but the click-driving headline or an eye-catching image in order to generate comments and click-throughs.
But it’s important to remember that there are many things worth reading, doing, buying, believing or not believing. The onus is on each of us to do the research. In other words, we need to study the issue; we need to do our homework; we need to avoid being manipulated. We need to make a genuine effort to figure out what’s accurate or inaccurate.
So how do you do that? For starters, figuring it out should involve more than simple Internet searches. It certainly involves more than just reading a blog or two. To be sure, technology has made our lives much easier. We have a number of tools right at our fingertips. Literally. But we have to do more. As one of my old journalism professors used to say: “Dig deep for the details!”
Getting down to the nitty-gritty—that which is essential, those specific details about why something is real or true or valid—may take more time and effort, but in the long run, truth is always worth finding. Trust me, I’m not lying.