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Goldilocks and the Three Bears

Stephen White
© matiasdelcarmine | Adobe Stock

Lockdown certainly sorts the gardeners out, at least around where I live. Some gardens I pass on my daily exercise hour are super-pristine, almost manicured in their perfection. Others remain a straggly mess, with the grass overlong and the weeds overblown. Mine fits into the latter category; not because I don’t care but because I don’t have the skill, the enthusiasm or the tools to do anything about it.

So when an announcement was made yesterday that the Prime Minister will address the nation on Sunday to indicate the first steps of relaxation I immediately sent a message to Peter, our gardener, to book a slot for next week to get the garden back into shape. We haven’t asked him to come during lockdown because he has a young family, because we are isolating, and because we felt it went against the spirit of lockdown to ask him to travel to come and do what is obviously a non-essential job.

Have I jumped the gun? Maybe Boris will tell us on Sunday ‘soon, but not yet’. Maybe he will indicate that some people can go back to work, but not gardeners. Maybe he will restrict non-essential travel to a 5-mile radius from home – Peter lives about 7 miles away.

The point is that the Government announcement about an announcement has structured my expectations that next week is going to be significantly different from this week. And they have done that by saying almost nothing, which has allowed the imagination of the journalists writing about it to run riot and has led me (and probably you as well) to expect all sorts of things that will probably not happen.

Is it better to say more, or say less? Giving little detail leads to an explosion of rumour and speculation, possibly over-optimistic and wide of the truth. But promising too much detail is just as bad. Two weeks ago, before the other devolved governments put their heads above the parapet, Nicola Sturgeon was telling the Scottish public that Scotland needed a clear and transparent strategy about relaxing lockdown and that she and they would have a grown-up conversation about it. But a few days later on the Andrew Marr Sunday show when she was quizzed about the detail she was an empty vessel, able to offer nothing except platitudes about taking action at the right time, led by the science. What a disappointment.

There is a commercial lesson here. Saying almost nothing says a lot. An example is Amazon Prime. In normal times Prime deliveries take one day - order online today, delivery will be tomorrow. During lockdown that has understandably slipped so Amazon advise that ‘estimated delivery times for some items may be longer than usual at the moment’. OK – that sounds like it will take an extra few days. But when you select an item to buy and go through the check out process you get told exactly when the delivery is anticipated and often it is months away. Disappointment reigns.

So my advice is to think about Goldilocks and the Three Bears when you plan your information disclosure. What effect will it have on your negotiating partner? Too little – their imagination runs riot and the subsequently revealed truth is a disappointment. Too much – disappointment straight away.  Getting it just right? It is not as easy as it sounds.

Stephen White
More by Stephen White:
The Fallacy of Data
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