Does Your Reader Trust You?

There’s a famous photo of Lyndon B. Johnson sitting despondently, with his head in his hands after he learned that, in a rare moment of editorializing, the venerable CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite characterized the Vietnam War as all but lost.

For nineteen tumultuous years, millions of Americans had tuned in every night to hear Walter Cronkite report on the state of affairs. When Walter Cronkite spoke, America listened.

Do our readers trust us that much?

Trust is a multilayered thing built over time. Here are a few qualities that Cronkite had that writers who seek to cultivate trust should consider:

1.  Authenticity

As writers, we have to speak the truth as we know it, no matter our genre. Sometimes this requires that we show parts of ourselves we’d prefer to keep hidden, including perhaps our vulnerabilities.

2.  Accuracy

As writers, we must recognize our biases, acknowledge what we don’t know, and avoid distortion or otherwise lift things from context. We have to separate fact from opinion, and give credit where credit is due.

3. Consistency

We must also present a consistent level of quality. If we have cultivated a voice, that voice has to be there as resonant as ever. If we have adopted a position or a theme, our treatment of it has to build in a direction a reader has come to expect.

4. Delivery

Cronkite set the bar for eloquent, measured, and calm delivery—exactly what you’d want from a news anchor. Even in the most emotional of times, his voice held the ground and in this, his listeners felt safe, which is fertile territory for building trust. The anchorman cultivated an effective voice—a perfect fit for delivering the news—but any writer needs to do the same. Fiction or nonfiction, whatever our purpose or goal, we too have to consider our delivery. Our tone and voice must fit the work and be such that the reader is able to absorb our words.

5. Faith

If we want our readers’ trust, we can’t do anything halfway. If we’re bored, or our emotional life is a mess, or we are writing by rote—these things will show. If we have lost faith in the value of what we do, this too will show. A good writing day or a bad one, it comes down to caring—and doing. Perhaps we need to take a break. Perhaps we need a vacation. But nothing goes out until it’s as perfect as we can make it.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo of Walter Cronkite widely cited in reverse image search including at http://www.worldculturepictorial.com/blog/archive/all/2009/7/19; LBJ at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam, Life Magazine, November 4, 1966; General Westmoreland in the foreground, http://faculty.smu.edu/dsimon/Change-Viet2.html among other sources.

Tell Stories that Matter

We all tell stories, and creative people—from the boardroom to the alley—tell the best ones.

A good story is something that strikes us as interesting, informative, maybe, and above all engaging. If it were a food, it might be described as meaty, or juicy, or fresh. Stories that don’t really matter are optional, like the whipped cream on dessert.

But how do we find a good story? How do we write what matters?

The answer to this question is always the same, and it was confirmed again lately at a festive little gathering where I ran into a friend.

In as private a moment as one can find in a crowded kitchen, not far from the bar, she mentioned that she was caring for her mother who lived several states away. In the beginning, her mother knew her, but now she doesn’t, and so a formality has settled over their visits, as if strangers just meeting.

“She may not know me, but at least she likes me,” my friend said. “She thinks I’m nice, and she likes my voice.”

She is nice, of course, and she has a nice voice, as well, which she put to work reading aloud to her mother to help fill the hours. She plucked the books right from her mother’s own bookcase on the theory that she would like them, and she did.

And then, she came across her mother’s very own diaries, right there on the shelf, and so she started reading those—the story of her life read back to her and in her own words.

What it would it be like to have your life narrated just as you recorded it, but heard now as if a stranger to the tale? Would something jump out as important? Would it entertain and satisfy? As perhaps surprises no one, mother and daughter were amply engaged.

It got me thinking about the stories that matter, and how to find them, and the answer never changes. The one story we care most about is always our own.

The storyteller who knows this has something powerful at his disposal.

Capture that in what you’re doing—some genuine quality that mirrors back to the reader a little piece of his own personal stake in the world—and you have a winner.  No whipped cream needed.

Photo credit: girl writing in diary, Nick Campbell, sxc; girl looking in mirror, Alex Bramwell, sxc.

The Need for Authenticity

I met a young Indonesian man once who worked in the dining hall of a cruise ship and who had an unusual talent for remembering names. Eight hundred, even a thousand at a time—he never made a mistake. If the computer, with its near endless capacity to store and retrieve the tiniest bits of information without hesitation, was not already in existence, one would have to search long and hard for a metaphor to describe this ability.

His name was Imam Harjowarsito Danarekso Riyanto. He shortened it to H.D. when he left home and later converted the initials to Hunky Dory. He liked that his made-up name did double duty, as it answered who he as well as how he was. “Hunky Dory!” he’d reply to either question, his face cracked wide with a smile.

Just about everything is done for you on a cruise ship. It was Hunky’s job to give each passenger a clean tray from the stack waiting at the head of the line, a busy little towel in hand to wipe away any lingering dishwasher drops. The ship’s guests enjoyed him and lined up on his side of the dining hall just for the pleasurable shock of being greeted by name and with such cheer.

Meanwhile, across the ship’s dining hall, another assistant steward, with the same job, was envious of Hunky’s celebrity. Also Indonesian, and playing on Hunky’s trick, he simplified his name to Okey Dokey. But because he did not have the same peculiar gift for recalling a patron’s name, nor was he particularly lighthearted, he did not woo away any of Hunky’s adoring patrons.

For a writer, it was a lesson in authenticity.

Okey would have been better off sitting down, examining his gifts, and building a plan for himself based on his strengths. Everyone has strengths. Instead, he chose to copy something that was not authentic to him, and the results were a little bit sad.

No matter the genre—and no matter art form, really, painter, writer, musician, inventor, whatever the creative undertaking—what you bring to it has to be the authentic you, or it likely won’t succeed. Begin with what you do well.

Photo credit: thumbs up – Davide Guglielmo, www.broken-arts.com; muscles – Andrzej Pobiedzinski; both with stock.xchng