When I was medical correspondent of a national newspaper, some years ago, people used regularly to ask me how I was able to write in such depth and detail about science and medicine when I was neither a doctor nor a scientist. I replied that I was much better equipped than either of those experts to write about these complex areas because, being burdened with very little specialist knowledge myself, I was able to pitch my stories at a level the general public could understand and relate to.
It is often assumed that the more you know about any given subject, the better able you are to communicate about it. Actually, the reverse is true. In my work as a communication skills trainer, I find that experts struggle to separate the wood from the trees, to simplify complex ideas, to distill from the mass of data swirling around their brains, the powerful concepts that will resonate with non-specialist audiences.
In their excellent book Made To Stick: Why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck, authors Chip and Dan Heath talk a lot about ‘the Curse of Knowledge’. ‘Once we know something’, they write, ‘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’. http://heathbrothers.com/books/made-to-stick/
Does it have to be like that? No, but if you are an expert you will have to work just as hard to overcome the Curse of Knowledge as a non-specialist will to understand your specialist area. Here’s how to do it:
- First, put yourself in the shoes of your audience – viewers, listeners, readers, students, whoever – and work out how much they already know about your subject, how much more they want and need to know and what they are capable of understanding;
- Next pinpoint the two or three key ideas or messages you want to transmit to that audience and try to strip them back to their simplest core. It has been said that any message, however intricate, can be reduced to six words – and that’s a great exercise to try;
- Finally clean up your language, stripping out the professional jargon that is designed to exclude others and replacing it with vivid everyday speech that is rich in the imagery, metaphors and analogies that arouse interest and aid understanding.
In time – and with a bit of help – you should be able to transform that curse into a blessing.