Like it or not, you're a know-it-all. Sure, you may be modest and unassuming, but if you've been pursuing your profession for a while, you're an expert in something: advanced mathematics or compensation or robotics or chemical engineering.

The trouble is, your expertise is a barrier when it comes to communicating effectively. Richard Saul Wurman, founder of TED Talks and author of Information Anxiety 2, explains: "Effective communication requires that you do what is nearly impossible: Remember what it's like not to know. Once you know how to do something and understand how something works, it's almost impossible to put yourself in the shoes of the person who doesn't know."

Dan and Chip Heath built on this idea in their book Made to Stick, coining the term, "The Curse of Knowledge." The Heath brothers write, "Once we know something, our knowledge has 'cursed' us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can't readily re-create our listeners' state of mind."

For example, say the Heaths, when "a CEO discusses 'unlocking shareholder value,' there is a tune playing in her head that the employees can't hear. It's a hard problem to avoid -- a CEO might have thirty years of daily immersion in the logic and conventions of business. Reversing the process is as impossible as un-ringing a bell. You can't unlearn what you already know. There are, in fact, only two ways to beat the Curse of Knowledge reliably. The first is not to learn anything. The second is to take your ideas and transform them."

How do you "transform" your ideas? By simplifying communication enough so your audience members can understand it. That has nothing to do with "dumbing down;" this is about respecting your audience members' intelligence by honoring the fact that they're knowledgeable about different things than you are.

Let me use an example to illustrate. At my house, when people visit, I enlist everyone to help. One time when my son Nick was in college, he brought a bunch of friends over for the weekend. At dinner time, I started assigning tasks. 

"Mike, set the table," I directed one guy. And another: "Lucien, you can make a salad."

Kevin needed a job. "Here," I said, handing him a cutting board, a knife and an onion. "Chop up this onion."

He looked befuddled. 

"What's the matter?" I asked. 

"I've never done this," Kevin said. "How do you cut an onion?"

I stopped in my tracks. And, in that moment, I was confronted by the curse of knowledge. Since I've been cooking since I was young, I've chopped thousands of onions. So, in order to explain to Kevin the fundamentals of onion cutting, I had to "unlearn" knowledge that had become instinctive. (By the way, if you're a cooking novice, Epicurious has great instructions on how to slice, chop and dice onions.)

So how do you overcome the fact that you know too much in order to communicate clearly?

Here is Wurman's advice:

"When you are presenting information to your audiences, remember that although you're exceptionally familiar with the topic, they may not have any idea what you are talking about. In every presentation, begin with something familiar. Give your audience at least one fact they already know and tie that into the new material you are presenting. Give them something slightly familiar so they have a starting point, an initial connection to the new world that you're bringing to them."

And Chip and Dan Heath have two recommendations (from an article they wrote in the Harvard Business Review):

First, translate the abstract into concrete terms. The Heaths use the example of Trader Joe's, the "specialty food chain whose mission is 'to bring our customers the best food and beverage values and the information to make informed buying decisions.' That's the company's abstract umbrella statement, and it hardly serves to distinguish Trader Joe's from other retailers.

"Trader Joe's beats the curse of knowledge and pours meaning into its strategy by using concrete language elsewhere," write the Heaths. "It touts its reputation as the 'home of cheap thrills,' describing its target customer as an 'unemployed college professor who drives a very, very used Volvo'" The image is a simplification, obviously; at any given moment, there are probably zero of these 'target customers' in Trader Joe's. But because it simplifies a complex reality, the description ensures that all the employees of the organization have a common picture of its customers."

Second, advise the Heaths, use stories to bring concepts to life. "FedEx, for example, uses a story related to its Purple Promise award, which honors employees who uphold FedEx's guarantee that packages will 'absolutely, positively' arrive overnight: In New York, a FedEx delivery truck broke down and the replacement van was running late. The driver initially delivered a few packages on foot; but then, despairing of finishing her route on time, she managed to persuade a competitor's driver to take her to her last few stops. Stories like this are tangible demonstrations of the company's strategic aim to be the most reliable shipping company in the world."

I'll leave you with one last thought about communicating simply to get your audience's attention. As Saul Alinsky, the late community organizer and author, summed it up this way: "People only understand things in terms of their experience, which means you must get within their experience."

Published on: Jan 17, 2019
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