Check your facts

Jan 12, 2012 | Better Writing

It was a great example. The story involved a major corporation and a significant initiative. It would be a great illustration of the point my client wanted to make. But we never used the example because we couldn’t verify it.

What happened? I’m not sure. My client heard a convention speaker give the example a few years before. He took notes at the time but never checked his facts because there was no need, until he wanted to use the example in his book.

Getting the facts wrong can ruin a book or a reputation. In today’s world, an error can be found more easily and publicized more widely than ever before. Here are three ways that authors get the facts wrong.

Human Memory is Fallible

Human memory is not very good. Decades ago, Elizabeth Loftus showed us how unreliable eyewitness testimony can be. Generations of researchers have demonstrated how easily we miss important things, even when we’re paying close attention.

Stories Change with Every Retelling

That’s right, every time a story is told, it changes slightly. Sometimes that’s done consciously to make the story “better.” More often it’s unconscious, a reproduction error or the innocent adding of detail that’s imagined, but not part of the original.

People Copy from Each Other without Verifying

The best example of this is the famous “goal setting study.” Here’s the basic outline.

Researchers surveyed the graduating seniors from the class of 1953 at Yale University. They asked if the class members had written goals for their future. Three percent did. The rest did not.

Twenty years later, researchers went back to the surviving members of the class. They discovered that those with written life goals had accumulated more wealth than all their classmates put together.

The only problem with this powerful finding is that there was no such study. Researchers at Yale and members of the class of 1953 all swear they never conducted or participated in a study like that.

There are other versions of this “fact” where the school is different (usually Harvard). Sometimes the year is different. Same for the percentage of class members with written goals.

Motivational speakers and writers of all sorts have perpetuated the myth by copying from each other without verifying. That might have worked before the net and transparency. It won’t work today.

Bottom Line

Check your facts. Verify your stories.