Why experts can’t communicate

Have you ever tried to explain something you know a lot about to someone who knows nothing of the subject?   Have you ever been frustrated by an expert’s attempt to explain something to you in simple terms?    At work, have you ever been asked to communicate details of a programme or a strategy and then been sent a 40-slide PowerPoint deck containing all the key messages (of course you have)?    There’s a scientific theory for this – a cognitive bias called the Curse of Knowledge.   In a nutshell, it means that when we know something really well, it can become hard for us to imagine not knowing it.   Being well informed about a topic can mean that we lose our ability to explain it in simple terms to someone less well informed.   The term came to prominence in the book Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath (which is a decent read for comms people actually).   In the book, the brothers explain how the more we increase our knowledge of a subject, the harder it becomes to communicate our ideas and messages about that subject clearly.   They recount a famous experiment by psychologist Elizabeth Newton in the early 1990s in which she paired volunteers into two groups – tappers and listeners.   Each tapper was asked to pick a well-known song and tap out the rhythm on a table.    Their partner, a listener, was asked to guess the song.   So, how did they do?   Dreadful.   Of 120 songs tapped on the table, the listeners guessed only three correctly (an embarrassing 2.5%).   The interesting bit though is that before the listeners gave their answer, the tappers were asked to predict how likely their partner was to get it right.    Here, the tappers thought their partners would get the song 50% of the time.     Here’s what Chip and Dan say about the experiment:  “The problem is that tappers have been given knowledge (the song title) that makes it impossible for them to imagine what it’s like to lack that knowledge.   When they’re tapping, they can’t imagine what it’s like for the listeners to hear isolated taps rather than a song.  This is the Curse of Knowledge.  Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it.  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.”   This curse is something internal communicators will understand.   A senior business leader wants to communicate a strategy to the rest of the organisation.  The leader, and his colleagues, have lived with the strategy for many months – discussions, drafts, workshops, consultancy etc – and their knowledge of the topic is deep and complex.   For them , the ‘tapping’ bit should come easy.   The audience, however, knows very little.   They are the ‘listeners’.   The leaders will want to communicate lots of information in words that come naturally to them.   They know the subject down to the micro level, and their ‘cut off point’ in terms of detail they feel should be communicated will be some way down – “if we tell them x, we should tell them y, and then we should include something about z”.   Our dear listener, on the other hand, doesn’t have the depth of knowledge and familiarity to take it in, process and internalize the many ‘taps’ coming their way.  So this is where we communications professionals have to come in and say “that’s enough”.  We have to understand what it’s like to not know something.   We have to explain to the passionate project manager who feels everyone should know everything about his project that, actually, they probably don’t.  And even if they do, they don’t want or need it all at once.   Simplifying a complex set of messages is one of the biggest challenges we communicators face.   Convincing senior, knowledgeable leaders to not communicate can be even harder.

2 thoughts on “Why experts can’t communicate

  1. Pingback: Seven ways to get your line managers communicating | Creative Communicator

  2. Pingback: The ten best ways to make your message stick | Creative Communicator

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