Most of us have experienced it acutely at the doctor’s office. A hurried, borderline frenetic, doctor bursts through the door and starts blathering on about your test results. He speaks quickly with lots of dense medical jargon; you stop tracking with him about 30 seconds after he starts. When he mercifully finishes, you have no idea what your test results say. Your doctor is suffering from the Curse of Knowledge, and you were just an unwitting victim.
The villainous Curse of Knowledge occurs when a person becomes knowledgeable about something and from then on is unable to imagine what it’s like to lack that knowledge.
It’s essentially a divide between expert and novice. The expert becomes unable to talk about things on a level that’s accessible to the novice, thus the common disconnect between doctor and patient, lawyer and plaintiff, etc.
This affliction can easily show its ugly face in presentations, and detrimentally so. It’s a surefire way to lose your audience: at best, they’ll become confused, at worst, they’ll see you as arrogant and aloof. And as expertise and specialization become more and more desired in our globalized world, this villain will become increasingly common. Here are some presentation tips to solve this problem.
Give it to Me Straight
Chip and Dan Heath discuss the Curse of Knowledge extensively in their book Made to Stick.
“The better we get at generating great ideas– new insights and novel solutions– in our field of expertise, the more unnatural it becomes for us to communicate those ideas clearly,”.
It’s difficult to think outside the box you’ve built around yourself, let alone describe to other people what’s inside your box. But it must be done if you want to make a lasting impression on your audience.
Begin by brainstorming the easiest, most accessible ways to explain the cumbersome idea. Cut out any jargon or catch phrases in your presentation language; bring your vocabulary down to a fifth grade level. Don’t talk down to your audience, but don’t speak with SAT words either. The Heath brothers encourage finding a “universal language, one that everyone speaks fluently.”
Remember Einstein’s timeworn quote:
“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
It hasn’t been quoted incessantly on a lark. Your audience will admire and respect you for explaining something complicated in a way that they understand, and more importantly, they will remember it.
Be Real With Me
One of the main complications associated with the Curse of Knowledge is the affected expert’s tendency to speak in abstractions. Because the expert knows his material so well he’s apt to speak about it with the precision and banality of an instruction booklet, but instead he should assume the tone of a Wikipedia page: knowledgeable, yet accessible.
Abstractions by definition make things unclear. Try to explain things as tangibly as possible to cut through the haze. Which brings me to the presentation tip to use diagrams, metaphors, analogies, comparisons, case studies– anything that gives the audience a visual rendering of the concept. Visual learners make up 65 percent of the population, which means that a good majority of the people in your audience will understand a great deal more about your complicated idea if you show it to them visually in some way.
Give Me a Break
More often than not, when it comes down to it, we simply forget that other people don’t know what we know, hence the typical doctor’s spiel full of inane medical jargon that the patient won’t ever understand. He forgets that you don’t know what that twelve letter word ending in –ology means. Awareness is the first step to avoiding the effects of the Curse of Knowledge. A simple acknowledgment that you and your audience have different specialties and backgrounds will do wonders for your ability to simplify an explanation.
Like always, put yourself in the shoes of your audience. We get it– presenting complex issues that you’ve spent years studying in a way that the average Joe can understand isn’t really that exciting. You’d probably rather talk about the possibility of extraterrestrial life than how many moons orbit Venus. But remember that in order to make a connection with your audience, you need to get on their level. You need to consider what an explanation will sound like to them. To put this presentation tip in just a few words – if it seems too complicated, simplify it.
Most people dislike going to the doctor for the explicit reason that they don’t clearly understand what the doctor says. Abstraction and ambiguity lead to frustration and irritation. Avoid the Curse of Knowledge’s disaster effects by putting yourself in the shoes of your audience, and being aware that at one point, perhaps long ago, you were just like them.