The Power of Boring Facts
By Peter Nevland - Jan 12 , 2010
Those who trust in the power of words to inspire their readers, rarely celebrate plain facts. And those who scour the ocean floor in search of buried treasure often forget to celebrate the clues that led them on their quest.
“I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge – myth is more potent than history – dreams are more powerful than facts…” says Robert Fulghum, author of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.
“Attitudes are more important than facts,” said 19th century writer George MacDonald.
“Don’t confuse facts with reality,” said Titanic discoverer, Robert D. Ballard.
Maya Angelou even goes so far as saying that, “Facts can obscure the truth.”
And they’re all correct. No formula, no table filled with numbers, and no charted evidence can ever completely describe the true spirit of life in our marvelous bodies. But writing without facts, inspiration without concrete evidence, directions without exact details, are like having pens with no ink, ladders without rungs, recipes for confusion in a forest of hazy shadows. Data may be about as sexy as dirt, but very few plants grow without it.
Properly used facts convince your reader that you know what you’re talking about. Consider the global warming / climate change debate, for instance.
The general public pretty much agrees that average world temperatures had risen 0.74 +/- 0.18ºC during the 20th century. The reason for this lay in the numbers we’ve beenshown by climatologists, centers for climate study and the like. Shrinking icecaps and glaciers clearly supported that claim, even if that data clashes with one’s political ideology. Enacting government policy to stop this potentially catastrophic rise in temperature has seemed necessary and unstoppable.
However, when word leaked that the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia, in Norwich, England, had suppressed data unfavorable to climate change, people started doubting the rise of world temperatures. That new information coupled with reports of a 26% growth of polar ice caps since 2007, according to the US National Snow and Data Center, has thrown the door wide open for reconsideration of global warming. Some scientists have even called for cooler weather over the next 20 or 30 years. As one of the leaked CRU emails stated, “The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t.” Public perception will decide which set of facts get believed, but no one will listen to an author writing an argument on global warming who has no data at all.
“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of the facts and evidence,” said John Adams, our second President and a lawyer.
This need for facts in no way absolves writers of the need for passion and creativity in their writing. A list of numbers inspires very few people. Writers who persuade and delight are those who understand hard data and then weave it into a meaningful story for their readers.
In fact, our need for evidence has given rise to the saying, “Write what you know.” The use of your own personal evidence, the exact details of your life, satisfies the needs of readers for more than an opinion. Those solid details won’t convince them that your experience connects to the truth experienced by the rest of humanity, but merely that you are an accurate witness. To connect your evidence to a larger audience, you’ll need to make sure that your observations have been experienced by others. That means research into the documented experiences and thoughts of others.
Thankfully, you can now find quite a bit of information at your fingertips with a connection to the Internet. Make sure, however, that your information is reliable. In researching this article I found an amazing quote saying, “The more facts you tell, the more you sell,” attributed to Dr. Charles Edwards, former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Upon further investigation, I was surpized to find no connection between this quote and this particular Charles Edwards.
An Irish statesman and philosopher, Edmund Burke, said, “Facts are to the mind what food is to the body.” Don’t feed your readers poop masquerading as food, or they’ll spit it out. It’s always good to get real interviews, to visit libraries, to personally visit the companies and locations you’re writing for. Your experience will bring a previously foreign world to life and help you fill your reader’s mind with lasting, savory verbal delights.
I’ve tried to write ads and website copy for my marketing clients before they’ve given me details, and the ads come out emotionally sappy and vague. The requirements of my master’s thesis forced me to write an overwhelming collection of details on High Temperature Deformation Behavior and Tensile Ductility of Commercial Aluminum Alloys, and the result was a 70-page book which perhaps 10 people have perused.
Without imagination and style, your information will provide a dry and dusty morsel for mental lips in need of refreshment. But without evidence, your creativity can only give instantaneous delight with no lasting value. You need both truth and creativity in order to write powerfully, and that happens only on a shaky tightrope wire straddling science and art.
“Facts are ventriloquists’ dummies. Sitting on a wise man’s knee, they may be made to utter words of wisdom; elsewhere, they say nothing, or talk nonsense, or indulge in sheer diabolism.” – Aldous Huxley