How the communications cookie crumbles

I like to figure things out for myself. Of course, one of the pitfalls of this approach occurs if you follow a set of directions that look plausible to your newbie eyes but are, in fact, risible to any expert in the field.

That’s what happened to me last year when I read a set of directions for icing holiday cookies that had been so oversimplified as to make it impossible to produce an attractive cookie. But, who knew? Not realizing the writer had cut corners, I flailed, snarled and plastered garish frostings and gels all over a whole batch of cookies. The result was hideous.

Today I paid $65 to watch a professional pastry chef demonstrate the right way to do it — making and rolling dough, blending icings, and decorating cookies with outlining and flooding techniques. It was a big “aha.”

I’ll likely be going into detail about cookie decorating ingredients, equipment, and techniques later in the week at the Geeky Gourmet blog. What I want to note here is the difficulty writers face trying to produce something useful and accurate in today’s “keep it short” culture.

Magazines chop articles to one page, and most of what’s on that page is a glossy picture of a trendy model doing something hip. Complex research reports are given two sentences of explanation in the news. Even worse, research findings are reported by the press without any mention of contradictory studies, or any comment from other researchers in the field.

I’m sure the writer for the well-known food magazine who sent me on my trip to cookie-decorating hell last year had been told to make cookie decorating look “quick,” “easy,” and “fun”. (Three words that have been thoroughly bankrupted by the birdbrains in marketing. The use of two of them in the same sentence should be grounds for electroshock; the use of three — let’s not go there.)

There are plenty of processes that are not quick and easy for newbies and never will be. That’s because these they involve finding and using unfamiliar materials and tools. And they involve practice.

As communicators, we need to be up-front about the limitations of our guidance when we’re serving up “Information Lite.” The cookie article that misled me last year could have alerted me with something like:

“This quick and easy [ZZZAP!] guide won’t yield the sort of smooth, polished cookie you see at the bakery, but it will produce colorful cookies your kids will enjoy frosting and eating. If you have the time to learn a more elaborate approach, consult Chef Julie’s new book, Bite Me: The Ultimate Cookie Encyclopedia.”

But it didn’t. And when renewal time rolled around, the magazine lost a subscriber. On the other hand, the kitchen supply store that hosted this year’s comprehensive cookie decorating class got not just my tuition money but $50 of business when I went shopping afterwards.

Surely there’s a lesson in this, somewhere.

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