TEDx - more perspectives from a speaker coach

Ever wondered how TED maintains such a consistently high standard of public speaking? How even some of the most complex topics are conveyed with such piercing clarity? For most TED alumni, It didn't come naturally...


At a recent sustainability summit in Johannesburg I was struck by how many speakers, many of them global experts in their fields, left the audience either in a state of complete indifference to their subject or indeed, so confused as to be moderately hostile towards them. It’s was a shame when you consider the importance of their work.


While no self respecting speaker sets out to alienate or confuse an audience it often happens despite his best efforts. An explanation as to why it happens emerged at a recent TEDx Cape Town dress rehearsal. It turns out the problem has a name...it’s called the “Curse of Knowledge”


It seems that the more familiar you are with a topic, the harder it is to explain it to others. Have you ever received directions from someone only to get hopelessly lost? Relax. It may not have been your fault at all. It’s The Curse at work. As TED’s Chris Anderson puts it, when we ourselves are deeply familiar with something “we find it hard to remember what it feels like not to know about it”.


The Curse of Knowledge is perhaps more accurately described as a “cognitive bias” that occurs when a speaker or writer unknowingly assumes that others have the background to follow and understand their explanation. What makes it so deadly is that mere awareness of the bias is no failsafe. You have to go to unusual lengths to counteract it.


Here are a few hints and tips to help you fight back:


Be sure of your throughline In a previous newsletter I wrote about the “throughline” - TED language for “theme”. The throughline is like the trunk of a tree which unites the many offshoots of your argument or explanation: things like stories, anecdotes, statistics and examples that complement, but never compete with, the big idea. The throughline is your secret weapon against The Curse. It also functions like a GPS navigator helping your reader or listener to understand where you are in your argument.


Be on the look-out for “explanation gaps” It’s so easy to gloss over or even to exclude a critical part of your explanation without knowing it. One way of seeing whether you’ve done this is to share an early draft of your communique with a friend or acquaintance who knows nothing (or very little) about your topic. Be alert for glazed looks, proof that they’ve stumbled into an explanation gap. Put differently, an explanation gap is a chink in your narrative where the links and joins between thoughts, ideas or concepts are not tight enough. Re-draft and repeat.


Keep an eye out for Jargon Overuse (and sometimes just use) of jargon and insider vocab is a telltale symptom of The Curse. Three letter acronyms are a staple of the modern corporate and while they’re meant to facilitate connections they encourage, in the long run, mental shortcuts that are unhelpful for both communicators and audiences.


A final warning from Einstein: “make everything as simple as you can possibly make it but no simpler”. Don’t patronise your audience by dumbing everything down to the lowest common denominator - make sure they can use their brains. It’s a delicate balancing act.


It’s worth persevering with the war on The Curse. As Psychologist Steven Pinker says, overcoming it is the single most important requirement in becoming a clear writer or communicator.

Click here to listen to a short talk on The Curse of Knowledge by TED curator Chris Anderson.

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