The writer’s job: looking after gorillas

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Thomas Heath / 2010

Tell me if this sounds familiar: you write a report in which you carefully deal with items A to Z, then your boss or client asks why you didn’t mention item G. ‘It’s there, you idiot’ you say (to yourself) ‘all covered on page 17, third paragraph, with a diagram too.’ Why did your reader miss item G? For the same reason that most of us can miss a gorilla.

Since 1999 the Harvard psychologists Simons and Chabris have been making news with their gleeful demonstrations of human perception. In one test they got participants to watch a film of a basketball game and count the number of times one team passed the ball. During the clip, someone in a gorilla suit strolls onto the court, faces the camera, does a little jig then slowly walks off. And guess what? 70% of subjects who were counting basketball passes failed to notice the gorilla. You’re doubtful? Then try this.

It’s called ‘inattentional blindness’ — our failure to notice things that distract us from our immediate tasks and goals. We perceive and remember only those details that get our focused attention.

So your reader probably missed what you said about item G because your report failed to connect this information with everything else you said. While items A to Z were all happily playing ball together, G was stuck in a gorilla suit.

Part of my work with writers involves helping spot gorillas in documents — those blind spots that readers instinctively ignore, because they don’t fit with the flow of the message.

Your gorillas might be lurking in the form of charts and tables that don’t support a particular point, unnecessary background information, generalised company statements pasted in, or legal provisos that belong elsewhere.

Unfortunately for us, gorillas are the writer’s responsibility. We can’t blame readers for missing a point — it’s our fault for failing to appreciate their inattentional blindspots. It’s our job as writers to understand those blindspots and keep the gorillas at bay. And, yes the same goes for moonwalking bears…