“Hey, did you know that the address you gave us was wrong?” queried a late and somewhat peeved attendee to the workshop. I didn’t. We talked further and I learned that although the Google map I provided directed people to the retreat centre the street number affixed to the stone entrance gate did not match the street number used to generate the map. More than one person noticed the discrepancy and assumed that they were at the wrong address.
I had never even noticed the street number on the stone entrance gate. I didn’t need to, I knew where I was going. My familiarity with the centre got in my way of communicating to others where it was located.
The Heath brothers in their book “Made to Stick” refer to this impediment as the ‘curse of knowledge’. Knowing something that my ‘audience’ does not can mess with my ability to communicate effectively. Chip and Dan Heath suggest that one means of disarming the ‘curse of knowledge’ is to define and refine the core message so that it is understood and retained by the audience. Let’s look at that.
Peel down to the core
For too long I have been coming at this the wrong way. My default was to re-work a talk to see how much I could cram into the thirty minutes I was given. The significant was jumbled up with the superfluous and the truly important with the tangential.
For a message to be understood and retained there needs to be clarity. As a speaker I must decide what chief idea I intend to communicate. Then I must be disciplined to peel away from my presentation ideas that are not essential to that core message.
Careful don’t peel too much
One of the ways that the ‘curse of knowledge’ plays itself out is that we define the core message in terms that are meaningful to us. Our listeners, however, who are not as familiar with the topic as we, are left outside wondering what our insider jargon means.
To compensate for that tendency it is a good practice to express the core message with simple and compact language. But there is a real danger of going to far and oversimplifying. Our efforts to make our idea clear and memorable instead end up yielding a pithy-like catch phrase that is irrelevant. We have stripped too far, peeling away both the superfluous and the core.
Leverage what your audience already understands
A great way to make our chief idea stick is to express the core using a schema familiar to the audience. This is particularly so if our core message has a degree of newness or complexity. For example, read aloud these letters: NF LNB ANH L. Does this list mean much to you? Does it seem new to you? How many of these letters do you think you could remember five minutes from now? Does that seem a bit complex?
Let’s try that again. Here are the same letters: NFL NBA NHL. For sports fans this series of letters has become much more meaningful and memorable. How so? Because the second time around we presented the letters according to a schema that is already well-known. Using that pre-existing familiarity enables us to make this string of letters more understandable and retainable in ways that the first listing did not.
Don’t forget leveraging an existing model of understanding only works if your audience uses that schema. The above example would have little relevancy to non sport fans. The second grouping of letters is not more memorable than the first because they don’t have any pre-existing familiarity with North American leagues.
Using schemas to make our ideas stick is not about lists of letters. What patterns and models of understanding have you tapped into to present your core message?by