Public Policy Writing That Matters

A lawmaker with conviction is a difficult person to persuade. It’s tempting to think that the reason they don’t do what you think they should is simply that they don’t know enough. They don’t know what you know. So you research a topic, live with it for months, and write a report or a memo with the goal of educating them. Facts. Figures. Regression Analyses. Case studies. Literature reviews.

But then they still don’t listen. They still don’t do what you think they should. And maybe you blame them for not realizing how ignorant they are. You read about public attitudes and compare those against public policy, and you see that about 70 percent of the general population has no concrete way to influence the policy that affects their everyday lives. Eventually, you grow cynical about the entire process. Maybe even a little helpless.

Here’s the thing. Ignorance is rarely the problem.

The reason lawmakers don’t do what you think they should is they don’t believe what you believe. When you present facts and figures, they don’t believe, so they question your sources or methodology. When you lay out a logical argument, they don’t believe, so they analyze the same elements and draw a different conclusion. And when that doesn’t work, they may try to change the subject, attack the person and not the argument, or spin the effect to rob it of its power. Most people do this. I know I do sometimes. You probably do, too.

Seven years ago, I left the uncertainty of academia for the relative safety afforded by work in public policy. I was tasked with helping researchers present their findings in a way that could be easily understood by lawmakers and the public. I dusted off my copy of The Elements of Style and admonished the researchers I worked with to omit needless words and to place their subjects and verbs closer together. Most times they accepted my edits, and other times I was told that the work couldn’t be simplified. “This stuff is complicated,” they would say.

Then three years ago, I had an epiphany. Unequivocal and undeniable evidence—the complicated stuff that takes months and years to uncover and analyze—just isn’t enough. If you really want to change someone’s mind—to change the world—you’ve got to engage and teach and communicate through shared emotions, values, and beliefs. You’ve got to tell a story.

In Public Policy Writing That Matters, I will show you how to do just that. I will show you how to analyze your months and years of research and communicate it so that you can engage with the values and beliefs of others. I will show you how you can structure your writing to find common ground and effect real and lasting change.

I believe in the power of storytelling. There are days, however, when I still doubt my ability to persuade lawmakers. But I never doubt my ability to communicate with and influence a friend or a neighbor, and perhaps that’s the most important skill of all.


David Chrisinger teaches public policy writing at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health and works as a communications specialist at the US Government Accountability Office. He is the editor of See Me for Who I Am: Student Veterans’ Stories of War and Coming Home. His latest book, Public Policy Writing That Matters, is available now.