Note: This is a guest post contributed at my invitation by Dave Higgins.
One of the biggest fears we face, especially when we first share our work, is that our audience (family, friends, readers, co-workers) will find fault with, or even ignore, our work. While this strikes writers of all types, both fiction and non-fiction, it is often opinion pieces that bring the greatest fear. We have read articles by others which speak with a voice of authority, but cannot think how to mirror this air of self-evident correctness. But this striving after rules to seem right can be a dead end; while rhetoric can be learned, and evidence better analysed, a casual voice of authority is neither a conscious thing, nor the product of certainty.
Knowing That We Know
To understand confidence, we must consider how people learn. One basic model is the consciousness/competence scale:
- Unconscious Incompetence: we do not know that we do not know how to do something.
- Conscious Incompetence: we know we do not know how to do it.
- Conscious Competence: we know how to do it and, over time, follow the steps in our mind more and more quickly.
- Unconscious Competence: we do it without consciously following the steps in our mind.
We do not expect to write with confidence about topics about which we are incompetent, so for our purposes we will only consider the last two sections.
The key division is between being able to do it, and being able to do it without thinking: in the context of a skill, we are slow, with pauses to consider and tentative movements; in the context of speaking with authority our mental process is slightly different, but the results are the same. Depending on whether or not we have to take ourselves through our points checking for correctness, our expression is either tentative or fluid, stilted or authoritative.
By moving beyond knowing our opinion is worth expressing, beyond even feeling our opinion is worth expressing, into not even consciously considering our opinion might not be valid, we allow the validity of our points to speak for themselves.
Knowing That We Do Not Know
Ironically, internalising the belief we are entitled to speak on a topic and be heard, is the first step in expressing our belief we do not know enough about the subject to speak without possibility of error or contradiction.
We can confidently admit doubts, safe in the knowledge our accuracy in other areas is not challenged by the admission.
This revelation of uncertainty where it really exists can even increase your authority. Consider scientists and politicians: which are more likely to say they are absolutely and totally certain about what they say? Which do you trust more?
Speaking in Voices
Just as we learn to drive a car or tie a bow-tie by doing it until we no longer need the steps, there is no single path to having a voice of authority. We must practice writing in the knowledge we have the right to be heard until we stop thinking about it.
However, there are ways of finding a voice within our work. Take a piece of writing and find the shortest truth in each sentence. For example, “The sky out of my window looks blue at the moment, but it could change later” is accurate, but so is “The sky is blue.”
The example is (deliberately) obvious, but might not always be as far from our style as we wish. Ignoring the slightly odd writing this trimming will no doubt produce, consider whether the edited writing feels more authoritative.
Once we have found the unconscious statements of uncertainty, we can focus on replacing them with the doubt that is appropriate for the specific work. Continuing the example of the sky, unless we are giving a detailed weather forecast, we do not need to focus on the possibility of change later.
A voice of authority is exactly that, one method of expressing something the speaker knows or believes. It is not a trick, or a set of steps that must be followed, but an extension of our unconscious acceptance that we speak with authority when we give our name, age, address, and many other things already.
So the truth really can speak for itself, if we let it.
Do you feel authority must be free of doubt, or do you trust open expression of doubt? Do you feel more caveats and exceptional cases always add trustworthiness, or look for solid opinion?
Dave Higgins has worked in law and IT for both public and private sector organisations. When not pursuing these hobbies, he writes poetry and speculative fiction.
He was born in Wiltshire, England. Raised by a librarian, he started reading shortly after birth and has not stopped since. He currently lives in Bristol with his wife, Nicola, his cats, Jasper and Una, and many shelves of books.
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