During election seasons, we often hear about fact checkers working overtime to check candidates' assertions. But in this guest post, marketing expert Marcia Yudkin shares why and how business writers should check the facts in their proposals, marketing pieces, and other writing.
Read Marcia's excellent advice below.
Fact Checking to the Rescue
The other day, writing a blog post, I mentioned a strategy that the King of Denmark used during World War II against the Nazis. When he was ordered to have all the Jews in his country wear a yellow star, the King put one prominently on his own coat, and overnight, his countrymen did the same. What a heroic example of nonviolent activism!
But when I looked up the incident online to verify this and add the year that it took place, I discovered that it never happened at all. According to Snopes.com, a website that specializes in investigating rumors and myths, no historical documentation whatsoever supports this story. Snopes notes that it was included in the 1958 novel Exodus by Leon Uris, which I read three or four times in my childhood. That’s probably where I recalled the story from.
Four or five times a year I have a similar experience while I am writing, either of remembering something inaccurately or starting to write something that others have discovered is not a fact. Fortunately, I include in my writing routine the step of making sure I am not passing along a blooper.
Whether you are writing company memos, project proposals, email correspondence, a press release or a promotional newsletter, you need a step of fact checking to ensure you have gotten things right. If you put Cedar Springs in Iowa, if you refer to 9/11 as having happened in 2003, if you say that lemons are thousands of times stronger than chemotherapy, you run the risk of getting egg on your face. (Cedar Springs is in Michigan; Cedar Falls is in Iowa. The 9/11 attacks took place in 2001. Snopes debunks the lemon claim here.)
You also run the risk of damaging your whole company’s credibility. In 2014, Amazon sent an email to thousands of authors asking for support in its dispute with Hachette, a New York-based publisher. Amazon claimed that literary great George Orwell had argued for its position.
The New York Times commented: “Could the Amazon Books Team, credited as the source of this post, have really written this? Because a moment’s Googling would have revealed that the team is misrepresenting this famous author.” Orwell meant the opposite of what Amazon claimed.
Factual mistakes erode trust. They can cause offense, weaken your case, distract people you're trying to win over, damage your reputation and spark public disparagement about your ignorance or carelessness.
Fact checking consists of looking up information to make sure something you have written is accurate. Although prestigious magazines employ specialists who check facts before articles are published, the basics of fact checking are something anyone can — and should — do.
First, and most importantly, remember to check. Here’s a quick list of some of the items you should fact check:
- Dates. This includes not only years, but also months and days of the week. If you announce a meeting for Thursday, December 6, but December 6 falls on Tuesday, some people will show up on Thursday and some on December 6, which is Tuesday.
- Other numbers, such as sales figures, the population of Canada, life expectancy in the U.S. or how many barber shops there are in your city. Sometimes you need to pull out your calculator, for instance to verify that Kansas has been a state for 155 years (2016 – 1861).
- Historical events, like Napoleon being exiled to Corsica or Franklin D. Roosevelt having received the Nobel Prize. (Both points are wrong.)
- Place names, people’s names and the like. It’s all too easy to write “Southern Maine University” when it’s really “University of Southern Maine.” And is it Kmart (yes), K-mart, K-Mart or KMart?
- Statistical claims, like unemployment having dropped or that only 1 in 10 people still read books.
- Geographical claims. Is Albany, New York, truly an hour’s drive from Boston or Milwaukee west of the Mississippi River? (No and no.)
- Quotes from famous people. Apparently when people aren’t sure who said what, they attribute cool sayings to Mark Twain, Albert Einstein, Nelson Mandela or Mae West.
- Scary technical warnings. One year, rumors that Facebook would be closed on February 29 went viral, until calmer minds pointed out that there was no such date that year. Even if it had said February 27, this could have been a hoax.
Second, check reputable sources. Someone’s blog, tweet or Facebook post is not a reliable source. Nor is a novel like The Da Vinci Code, a supermarket tabloid or whatever pops up first in Google. Major newspapers are generally trustworthy, as are government or university-sponsored websites. Wikipedia contains some mistakes, but it is usually accurate when it comes to general world facts.
Your organization’s annual reports are normally reliable, but a coworker’s memo on sales figures might have dropped a zero in the number you wanted to quote. For the proper spelling of a company name that is easy to bungle, like Kmart, trust only the website of the company itself.
When it comes to whether or not a quote really came from Mark Twain, Vince Lombardi, Mahatma Gandhi or Marilyn Monroe, keep looking until you find a source that cites exactly where or when the person said it. Most online quote collections are full of errors. Where you want to make a point that might be a myth, prank, hoax or urban legend, hunt for a rock-solid basis before you forward it to everyone in your network.
Learn more: Take Marcia Yudkin’s online course Fact Checking Made Easy. Practice applying the step-by-step fact-checking techniques, then check your work against Marcia’s answers and explanations. Become the accuracy hero of your department!
And take my course Proofread Like a Pro. You will learn the techniques that professional proofreaders use to ensure error-free documents.
Have you caught a blooper before it went public? Please tell us about it.