Why ‘protesting too much’ weakens your case

Am I the only person who thinks ‘Well they must be guilty then!’ when someone ‘categorically’ or ‘emphatically’ or ‘strenuously’ denies they have perpetrated some misdeed or that there is some fault with their product – rather than simply saying it isn’t true?

Far from strengthening an assertion, these kinds of modifying adverbs actually weaken the verb that follows, partly because they smack of bluster and desperation but also because they suggest, quite wrongly, that denial is a relative rather than an absolute term.

A lesson from ‘Hamlet’

It calls to mind what Hamlet’s mother Queen Gertrude says when her alter ego, the Player Queen, insists she will never remarry if her husband dies (unlike Gertrude herself, who remarried with indecent haste). ‘The lady doth protest too much, methinks’, mutters the guilt-stricken queen. If you look up this quote in Wikipedia, you’ll learn that these days someone who protests too much in favour of some assertion ‘puts into others’ minds the idea that the assertion is false, something they may not have considered before’.

The same is true of ‘intensifiers’ that modify adjectives – words like ‘very’ (or even ‘very very’), ‘amazingly’, ‘dreadfully’, ‘extremely’, ‘frightfully’, ‘incredibly’ and many others like them. By adding an emotional dimension to the word that follows, they actually diminish its impact.

Every word should earn its place

When it comes to speaking or writing, less is generally more in terms of impact. The most powerful prose or rhetoric is spare and unadorned, with every word earning its place.

It took me a long time to appreciate this truth on entering the world of journalism after three years as a student of English literature, when I wrote in the most embarrassingly florid language, partly because I thought it made me look clever but mostly to pad out my essays to the required length.

I remember my shock and disbelief when my first editor, on a weekly newspaper in a mining village in the English midlands, told me that my copy would start to look half way decent once I restricted myself to words of one syllable and stripped out all the adjectives! It took some time to adjust, but it was one of the best tips I was ever given as a writer.

If something is true just say it with confidence

Another ‘weakener’ to avoid is the subjective prefix – ‘I think’, ‘I believe’ or ‘I feel’. If you are making a statement of fact, such as: ‘this drug is effective’ or ‘this scheme is risky’ or ‘this person is well qualified for the job’, introducing an element of subjectivity only serves to suggest that you are not sure of your ground and it might not be true.

Even worse are prefixes with modifiers like ‘I feel very strongly’ or ‘I believe passionately’. (And, as a woman, I am sorry to say that women are more likely than men to use these emotion-laden phrases.) If something is true – and you have the facts and figures to prove it – then just say it with confidence. Introducing a subjective element can only serve to undermine your statement and, ultimately, your own credibility.

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