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The curse of knowledge: Why experts struggle to explain their work

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Experts in a given domain often have a hard time communicating with nonexperts. They dive into the weeds; they ignore context; they talk over heads and beyond interest.

“That is the curse of knowledge,” saida senior lecturer in managerial communication at MIT Sloan. “We have to work really hard when we are communicating information to people who don't have the same level of expertise that we have.”

This skill becomes particularly important in conversation with senior managers or external clients and stakeholders.

In a recent webinar, “The curse of knowledge: Why smart professionals struggle to explain their work,” Kazakoff explored this challenge and offered one simple solution, among others, to help bring the worlds of experts and nonexperts closer together. Here are highlights from his presentation:

Understand the process of understanding

Kazakoff began with the fundamental description of communication. How, on the most basic level, do we communicate with each other?

Drawing from engineering, he outlined a three-step process that begins with the encoding of information. All of our ideas exist first in our heads; we encode these either in visual form, as words or pictures or graphs, or in audio form, by speaking. In the second step, this information is transmitted to other people. Finally, recipients decode the transmissions that they receive.

“You take in visuals through your eyes and sounds through your ears, and your brain decodes this back into information,” Kazakoff said. “I believe that every communication problem we have happens in this process of encoding and decoding information.”

The challenge arises because one brain — yours — encodes information, but many, many different minds decode that same information, Kazakoff said. Decodings that seem obvious to experts can be difficult for or misinterpreted by other people.

“One of the critical challenges of professional communication is to recognize and internalize the variety of ways that people decode things,” he said.

To illustrate the way experts have a hard time unknowing a topic in which they’re immersed, Kazakoff showed the audience a picture of a rose. He then showed the same picture highlighting an unexpected image hidden within the petals of the rose. Once revealed, this image became a defining feature of the rose.

“When we see a pattern or recognize something or know something, we forget what it was like before we knew that thing. We can't unsee [it],” he said. “This is why experts struggle to communicate about their own domain to nonexperts. There is a tremendous amount of context and knowledge that makes it hard to recognize what it was like before we knew what we now know. "

Use headlines, not labels, in your presentations

Kazakoff has developed a battery of tactical tools for overcoming the challenge of encoding and decoding (solutions that he covers in an executive education course he teaches, "Persuading with Data"). In his webinar, he honed in on just one of those solutions, an often overlooked practice that can improve comprehension in slide decks, which are ubiquitous in the realm of business communications.

The short of it: Write headlines, instead of labels, on the top of each slide. A label simply describes what the topic of the slide is. In contrast, a headline explains the most important idea on a slide or the one thing you want the audience to take from a graph.

“This is one of those things that is simple to understand, somewhat difficult to do, and that has a tremendously powerful impact on your audience. It forces you to decide the point of each slide and the presentation as a whole,” Kazakoff said.

Headlines offer experts multiple benefits:

  • They help presenters refine the point they’re trying to make and they help narrow the variety of ways in which the audience might decode the information that’s being presented.
  • They can help reduce the number of off-topic questions.
  • Beyond slide presentations — in a meeting or conversation, for instance — a headline approach can help presenters define the core ideas they want to communicate.

What makes a good headline? Kazakoff says it ought to contain a verb. Presentations that use headlines in that way create a basic narrative or argument when the slides are threaded together. Reading the headlines alone would make the point of the presentation, and if the audience agrees with the logical progression of the headlines, they will accept the conclusion.

“These are actually surprisingly difficult skills to master,” he said. And they require practice; they benefit from formalization. “We have classes here at MIT of course, but I’d suggest you think about different ways that you can go through cycles of this to help make it into a process, a framework, and a reference point that gets better as you work with it.”

Watch the webinar

Explore the course: “Persuading with Data”

Peruse the book: “Persuading with Data”

For more info Tracy Mayor Senior Associate Director, Editorial (617) 253-0065