When your knowledge curses you...

On the afternoon of October 25, 1854, a brigade of British cavalry made a daring attempt to capture the Russian guns at Balaclava in the Crimea. "Into the valley of death they rode" remembers the famous poem by Tennyson, "Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do or die". Oh, and they died alright. Of the 670 British cavalrymen that made up the famous Light Brigade, only 300 came through unscathed. Until recently, historians have blamed the disaster on the arrogance of the British command. While that may have been part of it, there was another force at play: confusing orders given by people who assumed the recipients knew what they were talking about. Orders that were so vague they required significant re-interpretation by the people who took the proverbial plunge.

The orders, quite literally, were cursed.

The same force that brought about a famous military disaster may well plague your next high-stakes presentation.

Image source: historic-uk.com

Consider the following scenario:

“Smith left home, rushing forward as quickly as his legs would carry him. After running for a short distance, he turned left, waving his arms wildly. He turned sharply left and then dodged left again. Approaching home, his eyes grew big as he came face to face with a man wearing a dark mask”

What is going on here? A scene from a horror movie? A spy drama perhaps? Who is Smith and what is he doing running around like a crazy person? It feels a little bit like walking into a film 15 mins late doesn’t it? But what if I told you Smith was a baseball player? He’s just made one of his best hits of the season and now, as he “approaches home”, he’s coming face to face with the catcher from the opposing team - that’s “the man in the dark mask”. This knowledge would change everything right? Of course, it would. Here’s the thing though - many presenters just assume the rest of us know which movie is playing in their head - that they can jump at will from one scene to the next - or even skip a scene or two - without losing us.

So back to that invisible force that plagued The Light Brigade and which threatens your next speech or preso. Thanks to Professor Steven Pinker it has a name and that name is “The Curse of Knowledge”. The curse holds that the more familiar you are with a topic, the harder it is to explain it to others. As TED’s Chris Anderson puts it, “we find it hard to remember what it feels like not to know about it - our knowledge has ‘cursed’ us”.

“We find it hard to remember what it feels like not to know about it - our knowledge has ‘cursed’ us”.

The effect is that we unknowingly assume that others have the background to follow and understand our explanations. The "Curse" - regardless of our expertise, undermines our credibility. And, because people are either too polite or too scared to speak out, we walk away from our presentations under the illusion that communication has taken place

And here’s the triple whammy of the Curse of Knowledge. Mere awareness is no guarantee you won’t fall foul of it. You have to go to unusual lengths to counteract it...and FYI - it can be a rather harrowing process.

Chris Anderson likens the communication of complex ideas to assembling a ship inside a bottle.

  • First, the craftsman must be intimately familiar with the component parts.

  • Next, she must place them into the bottle in the correct order - piece by logical piece, layer by logical layer.

  • Finally, she must fuse the pieces until they resemble the ship she had in mind in the first place.

Any break in the logic, any piece missing, or a failure to fuse one layer to the next, and the project is doomed. It’s the same with your narrative. Anderson continues:

“A talk isn’t a container or a bin that you put content into, it’s a process, a trajectory. The goal is to take the listener from where she is to someplace new. That means trying to make the sequence so stepwise that no one gets lost along the way.”

Here are some strategies for defeating the Curse of Knowledge

Firstly, identify an overarching theme (the equivalent of your "ship") for your presentation or keynote. Anything that conflicts with this theme is likely to be a distraction. A good theme helps you to organise and unite the many offshoots of even the most complex of arguments.

Secondly, break your theme down into a hierarchy. What do you have to explain first so people can understand subsequent layers of your argument? I like to get people to imagine they are explaining the concept of a Big Mac to a time traveler from the 18th century. If you think about it, there are so many concepts of the “Big Mac experience” that we moderns take for granted and which would be utterly alien to our friend from the 1700s.

  • How could they understand what a drive-through is if they don’t understand the concept of a car?

  • How could they understand what a bread bun is if they are only used to bread loaves?

  • How would the idea of a patty make sense if processed meat was not a thing back then? And so on...

In short, do a “big mac” on your argument...

Thirdly, rehearse your explanation with an outsider - someone who either knows nothing about the topic or who is, at most, new to it. Ask them where you lost them. Newbies are brilliant at spotting explanation gaps - that is to say, chinks in your argument. Outsider consultation is, I find, a very refreshing process. Because it calls for such a high level of explanatory rigour, it has the dual effect of showing me where my knowledge on a given subject is weak or even non-existent.

Good luck! And at the risk of adding too much cheese to the Big Mac, yours IS to reason why, yours NOT to do and die...


TED Talks - Chris Anderson

Cautionary Tales - Tim Harford

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