Wick Communications

The curse of knowing too much

In Books on 12 Aug 2011 at 8:56 am

I got a pair of government press releases this week that made me want to hang up my pen and give up writing altogether. They were nonsensical, self-important blather that proved conclusively, to me anyway, that our bureaucrats have no understanding of the people they purport to serve. The writers of this dreck are paid to help solve our problems and that means rendering policy understandable to the masses.

Instead, they write stuff like this:

The public comment period for the draft conservation strategy related to the Sacramento Valley, San Joaquin Valley, and Delta has been extended 15 days. The draft report, entitled Conservation Strategy for Restoration of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Ecological Management Zone and the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valley Regions, will now be available for public review and comment until Sept. 6, 2011.

And this:

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – The California Fish and Wildlife Strategic Vision staff made Stakeholder Advisory Group appointment recommendations to the Executive Committee today.

Look, don’t get me wrong. I have a lot of respect for public-relations professionals as a whole. But, for some reason, those employed by the government are prone to writing like this. I assume it’s the bureaucratic nature of things – that these releases pass through 15 hands for approval and each hand feels the need to add a capital letter here and a pompous bit of verbiage there. …

I shared my frustration with Marshall Wilson. He’s the communications director for San Mateo County here in California. He’s seen the dance from both sides; he used to write for the San Francisco Chronicle. When I complain about government functionaries who cannot write, I am most certainly not talking about Marshall.

Anyway, Marshall made a good point.

“I don’t think the problem is as much obfuscation as total immersion in a particular subject or program,” he wrote in an email to me. “Ever listen to two computer programmers gossip about the latest gadget or eavesdrop as two doctors discuss your lab results? It’s typically incomprehensible. But it makes sense to them. They have built up specialized knowledge and vocabulary over many years and understand the myriad acronyms and abbreviations because they live with those every day.”

Marshall suggested a book by Chip and Dan Heath called, “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die” to help understand the phenomenon. (Which is funny because just the other day I picked up a Heath brothers book called “Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard.”)

In Stick, Marshall says, the Heaths discuss the “curse of knowledge.”

“Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has ‘cursed’ us.”

Here’s Marshall again: “It’s the same when someone close to a government project or program writes a news release or a meeting announcement. Once you know something, as the Heath brothers say, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like not to know it. So the processes, committee names, bill numbers (SB this and AB that) make perfect sense to the writer.”

Marshall also notes that those in government aren’t trained to worry over a catchy lede – in fact, they are taught to present the facts in an unbiased manner. That doesn’t produce a lot of winning writing.

OK. Marshall’s right. And I feel a little better about these people who are constantly sending me this government junk. They are cursed. I should be more forgiving. It’s my job to take their knowledge and make it understandable to the rest of the world.



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