Overcoming the Knowledge Curse

In Margin Call, Jeremy Irons plays the CEO of an investment firm that’s about to go under because they have a problem so complex, most of the staff doesn’t understand it. At 2 a.m. Irons says, “Maybe you could tell me what is going on. And please, speak as you might to a young child. Or a golden retriever. It wasn’t brains that brought me here; I assure you that.”

People with great expertise often find themselves unable to explain what they are doing to anyone else. This is because the brain’s shortcuts for storing and organizing complex information create barriers to communicating clearly to anyone else.

We see this happen in our work all the time. For example, SGA did public outreach for a regional infrastructure project. When residents told our clients they were afraid the project could trigger landslides, our clients waved them off. To our clients — a team of engineers who’d spent years on this project studying the geology and consulting with even more specialized experts — landslides were clearly not an issue.

However, this answer only angered residents. The engineers were so in the weeds on the technical issues, they completely missed the real question, the emotional side of the community’s worries. They were saying: “Don’t worry about landslides. We are the experts. If landslides were a problem, we would tell you.” But what the community heard was a lack of concern and condescension.

When we were brought in we worked with them on that real underlying question – the community’s worries. Instead of framing the question around the technical issue, “what is the probability of a landslide.” We shifted their answer to an agreement about the concern… “We too are concerned about landslides and that is why we brought in experts and have extensively studied this issue and here is what we found…”

This helped them address the broader issue and more importantly the emotions of the question and not just the technical information. In the next community meeting, the reaction had flipped almost 180 degrees from feeling disrespected and angry to one of gratitude and appreciation.

Engineers, scientists, lawyers, accountants and other experts fill the ranks of government and are who we usually work for. Many clients are like those engineers: So immersed in their expertise, it’s understandably hard to put themselves in the shoes of people who haven’t had their training or experience.

Harvard Psychology Professor, Steven Pinker, who studies language and the mind says it is common for experts to have trouble communicating what they know. It’s called “the curse of knowledge.” It happens because the same mental processes that help experts organize data in their brains get in the way of their ability to present what they know to others.

One of these tactics is called “chunking,” a process “in which we package groups of concepts into ever further abstraction in order to save space in our brain,” according to a The Farnam Street Blog’s post on Pinker’s findings.

Another reason why this emerges is through jargon. Language short-cuts within a given expertise. Jargon is often looked down upon, but it is actually very valuable. Where it becomes problematic is when those in the know (Curse of Knowledge) are speaking to people outside of the field and the language becomes meaningless.

When the government starts educating people in neighborhoods about a new project, the knowledge gap can be immense. The city officials know everything about the project, and are comfortable speaking about it amongst themselves in their private language. But good communication is all about knowing your audience and breaking the “curse” (of knowledge), so your audience understands you.

With help from Professor Pinker, here are six of SGA’s best practices to overcome “the knowledge curse.”

  1.  What is your audience’s concern? Look at the issue from their point of view. Relate the issue to their narrative of how they see things
  2. If you must use technical terms, define them.
  3. Use concrete examples.  Remove abstractions from the conversation by providing an example that someone can visualize. The better they can see what you are talking about the easier it is for them to understand.
  4. Spell out acronyms at least once. Never assume your reader knows what the acronyms stand for.
  5. Ask you answering the right question.When we are steeped in solving a problem and creating solutions we are usually answering the question HOW? How do we build something, how do we draft the policy, etc. But when an outside audience is engage they usually ask questions about WHY? Or WHAT? Why is this important to me or What do I need to do next. When we talk to an audience outside our field answering the right question is easy to miss.
  6. Get a second set of eyes to read over your presentation and see if they understand it. According to Pinker, “The form in which thoughts occur to a writer is rarely the same as the form in which they can be absorbed by the reader.”

For more insights on communications, here are some other recent recommendations to articles and books that have recently inspired us at SGA:

A still very relevant summary of current research into the social evolutionary reasons behind human irrationality, by one of our favorite New York Times writers, Elizabeth Kolbert.

“Providing people with accurate information doesn’t seem to help; they simply discount it. Appealing to their emotions may work better, but doing so is obviously antithetical to the goal of promoting sound science.The `challenge that remains is to figure out how to address the tendencies that lead to false scientific belief.”

  • On the topic of public sector communications challenges, check out the Planet Money Podcast Episode on why the State of California couldn’t get eligible state residents to sign up for what was, in effect, free money.