Being a Better Liar 2: Lie Harder

When writing is a business what do you do when the rules are broken, especially when they’re broken by the person who set them?

I wrote about being a better liar, but reading it out at my writing group I realised I’d broken Considered Word’s chief rule – show, don’t tell.

I know, I know. But I paid the price when I squirmed reading out such a plodding piece, and now I’m making it up to you with an extra-special, example-rich extravaganza.

As with last time, we’re looking Newman, Pennebaker et al’s paper Lying Words: Predicting Deception From Linguistic Styles and how knowing how liars lie and why it will make you a better storyteller.

My belief is that storytellers are professional liars, with the caveat that the deception is entered into willingly by the audience. But the little things will shatter this illusion.

Deep in your brain your subconscious knows how to spot a liar and bad writing activates this. You can’t switch off your subconscious, it may lay dormant but it’ll prod your conscious when it knows something’s wrong. One slip and your story collapses:

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But don’t just take my word for it, let’s quote a cop in Reservoir Dogs (for where would a guy-edited storytelling site be without at least one quote from old Tarantino):

The things you gotta remember are the details. It’s the details that sell your story. Now this story takes place in this men’s room. So you gotta know the details about this men’s room. You gotta know they got a blower instead of a towel to dry your hands. You gotta know the stalls ain’t got no doors. You gotta know whether they got liquid or powdered soap, whether they got hot water or not, ’cause if you do your job when you tell your story, everybody should believe it. And if you tell your story to somebody who’s actually taken a piss in this men’s room, and you get one detail they remember right, they’ll swear by you.

Let’s run through Newman et al’s observations one by one.

1. Liars use lots of motion words and directions, eg, “I walked home”

I’m going to call some people out as liars (don’t worry, they’re only politicians) later on, so it’s only fair I start with an example of my own. Not because it’s good, but because it’s bad.

It’s from the first time I tried writing a book, Phoebus Haack:

Back on the ship Phoebus had taken off his coat and was deep in thought, his chin resting on a fist. Jemima did not say anything, leaving Phoebus to stare ahead quietly. Phoebus suddenly became animated, he snapped his fingers.

Did you learn much in that paragraph? Did it feel real? Not to me it didn’t, and it’s why it’ll remain unpublished.

2. Liars rarely use exceptions or evaluative sentences, eg, “usually I take the bus but it was such a nice day I walked”

Think back to at school if you were ever questioned by a parent or teacher about, well, let’s say possible misdemeanour. Your stories were always pretty simple: “I went straight home”, “I did exactly as I was told” and other, well, lies.

Or then there are things like courtroom confessions:

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(If you can’t see it then head to YouTube).

3. Use few self-references per person

Actually if you watched the above clip (and you should, Bill Murray is on form in it) this rule seems to contradict her speech, maybe Neve Campbell’s character wasn’t the most well-written liar, but I don’t think Wild Things is remembered for the script.

According to the research, liars use few self-references. Let’s look at it another way, do we trust someone with high levels of self-references?

Let’s look at a famous speech from a famous film – Gordon Gecko declaring that greed is good in Wall Street.

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Now, according to some sources, this speech was actually meant to be a satire on financial excess, not a cheerleader for it, and Oliver Stone was not happy to have it taken as ‘the truth’.

So who is right – Gordon or Oliver? I found this bit of kit from James Pennebaker, one of the lead authors on the paper I’m quoting – his LIWC, or Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count.

It has some caveats, but overall it’s a program that uses his research on the words people use to find out a little bit about the person behind them – something that made me perk up, as that is after all what a good character should be like, have depth beyond the words we have on screen.

I fed the Greed is Good speech into the LIWC and what it told me was that Gordon’s speech was highly ‘truthful’ – that it has high in affective (8.18) and social (7.93) processes and personal references (14).

There are other indicators that it was a moving speech, but the high self-references mean that while Oliver Stone may wish he wrote a ‘liar’s’ speech, but in fact he wrote a ‘truthful’ one. Good for the film, bad if you want to influence your audience.

4. Liars use more negative emotional words

I like gadgets, I’m counting LIWC so let’s put it to another test. Did George W Bush know that claims that Iraq had WMDs were false?

It’s a tough one, for he may have genuinely believed it had them even if he had seen information that it was not the case, or, vice-versa, seen evidence that Iraq had them but didn’t believe them.

If we put his speech through the LIWC wringer then we find that he has a much higher rate of negative emotional words (5.83) than positive ones (4.02), along with a lot of anger (4.19), while at the same time using a lot of inclusive terms (6.91) to get the audience on his side.

5. Liars can’t help but have the truth seep out in the phrases they use

Even if a liar is doing their best to tell you their version of events, the truth will often show itself.

Word choice is one – perhaps there is ambiguity about a word or phrase that reveals the truth. Or sometimes what’s really on the mind will just come out, as in this Friends clip:

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6. Liars have a motive for lying

“Well of course!” I hear you say. Even ‘harmless’ liars such as Billy Liar had a motive – to escape the dead end job. Baron von Munchausen was mentally disturbed. Kaiser SΓΆze wanted to not just escape the police but to do so with style in (do I really need to say spoiler alert?) The Usual Suspects.

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Criminals have a motive for lying, I think that what really applies to storytelling is this – your characters, any characters, liars or not, have motives for what they do, so what are the words they use? Likewise, as a storyteller and professional liar, what is your motive for telling your story, what is the point of it and what do you want to achieve?

Pull it all together and you can create a story that people believe and enjoy – as in the story mentioned in the Reservoir Dogs quote at the start:

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There are caveats and qualifications but these are the key points on what liars do:

  • Use lots of motion words and directions, eg, “I walked home”
  • Rarely use exceptions or evaluative sentences, eg, “usually I take the bus, but it was such a nice day”.
  • Use few self-references or even references in the third-person.
  • Distance themselves from events.
  • Use more negative emotional words.
  • Often have the truth seep out in the phrases they use.
  • Have a motive for lying.

And that’s the truth.

By Jonathan Richardson

Jonathan Richardson is a writer and the editor of Considered Words.

He's worked as a journalist, writer and analyst for organisations including the BBC and Which? He's also written for the stage in Cambridge, radio and sketches at the Edinburgh festival.

He's now a freelance writer and data analyst.

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