• Hayley Cherrett

“Did you eat the last biscuit?” Detecting the copy criminal.

You want your reader to believe you. If they’re going to buy your product or service, you need them to trust you.

But, unwittingly, could you have copy that sounds like you’re lying? Psychologists have identified a long list of signs that indicate someone might be lying. And a lot of them can be detected in weak copy too. How can you tell? Let me explain using the “who ate the last biscuit” test. The following responses contain signs of lying:

“I did not eat the last biscuit”


“Didn’t” a simple shortening of “did not”. Often called a contraction. Some of us are haunted by memories of teachers, lecturers and tutors underlining these simple contractions in a nasty red pen. Academics hate contractions as they feel they lack gravity. But liars often avoid contractions to add extra emphasis to the denial. Interrogators call this a “non-contracted denial”. One of the most famous real-life examples from the less famous Clinton:

“I did not have sexual relations with that woman… Miss Lewinsky” – Pres. Bill Clinton 1998

Many of the professional services companies we work with say they don’t like to use contractions on the grounds that they’re not “professional”. But then neither is lying.

“I did not eat the last biscuit… It was not me that ate the last biscuit”

Repetition. Another tell-tale sign of a lie. Like a villain, you might be doing it because you don’t know what to say. You’re filling space and hoping it will fool your audience. More likely, you’ve simply forgotten what you wrote a paragraph ago and have just written pretty much the same thing again. One of the key ways to avoid careless repetition is to invest some time planning your copy before you write. You’ll find some tips in our post about Giraffes’ Bras. No really. The demands of writing for the internet, with endless word counts and frames to fill, leads writers into all sorts of repetitive crimes as they write to fit. If it’s happened to you or your brand, take a step back, have the confidence to say less. Or if the situation demands more copy, find something new and original to say. In the case of the biscuit thief, they’re making stuff up. Don’t end up looking like you are too.

“When I last saw the biscuit it was there still – all round, crumbly and golden”

Seem unnecessary? Providing too much information can rouse suspicion. However, when writing copy, providing readers with too much information will probably just bore them. Too much detail makes stories seem rehearsed. Liars are notoriously chronological and precise in their storytelling. Too much detail can make your copy sound robotic and unbelievable. Read our post: 5 things your customer doesn’t care about.

“I never have even eaten a biscuit”

When liars are trying to convince someone, they’ll often use radical assertions. An easy spot is they’re attempting to put emphasis on what they’re saying to make them appear innocent. A popular version of this is the unnecessarily dramatic over-claim – here’s an example from technology consultants, DonRivers:

We never let our customers down. Ever.

This double whammy not only lacks maturity but is also a very strong statement that is hard to believe.

“You still owe me that fiver.”

Liars often change the subject. Of course, you’re not going to change the subject. You’re talking about your product or service, so why would you start talking about squirrels? A guilty party changes the subject to distract. And you’ll definitely distract your reader from wanting to read your copy if it’s unorganised. Without structure, you’re not going to build trust with your reader.

“The biscuit obviously wasn’t there”

Liars take as little responsibility as possible. A way of detecting this is the lack of personal pronouns. So copy without personal pronouns is just as bad. You want to be responsible for the greatness of your product or service, right? If you own something, say “we”. If you’re addressing your audience say “you” and so on.

What can you do to avoid sounding like a liar?

  • Use contractions and personal pronouns

  • Don’t repeat yourself

  • Too much fact and irrelevant detail is robotic

  • Changing the subject is distracting

  • Waffle is a sign of guilt

Trust is key for any relationship. Especially between you and your audience. So ask yourself if what we know about lying verbally applies to your copy. Do you look like a liar?