You've probably been in situations where someone is speaking and they seem to only focus on general ideas and concepts. They are not specific and you find it hard to relate the points to the real world. This is because their communication is more abstract.
The opposite may be even more prevalent. In this example, the person speaking is focused on very specific data points and examples. The data are interesting, but you find it hard to see the big picture. This communication is more concrete.
The best communicators are able to use both these ideas in tandem: a balance of abstract and concrete. You can think about this spectrum as a ladder: the ladder of abstraction. Samuel Ichiye Hayakawa developed this idea in 1939 in his book Language in Thought and Action.
When planning a presentation or classroom lesson, you can use the ladder to consider your points. You might ask yourself: Am I being too abstract? If so, move down the ladder to more concrete examples.
When I'm asked about the causes of unclear or confusing communication, I always highlight the curse of knowledge. I believe it is one of the most impactful ideas for communicators to understand. Why? Because we all have the curse and it influences our explanations.
The big idea: The more we know about a subject, the harder it is for us to explain it to a beginner. Our knowledge curses us and interferes with our ability to make accurate assumptions about our audience. We find it difficult to imagine what it's like not to know.
For example, think about a lawyer who spent her career reading and writing legal documents and talking with fellow lawyers all day, every day. When someone new to law asks this lawyer about tort reform, they're likely to get an explanation that seems confusing. This lawyer has the curse; they know too much to answer the question in a language understood by a layperson.
We're all guilty of having the curse. We all have something in our life that we know very well - perhaps too well to explain easily. The key is to know that the curse exists and to be prepared.
Video: Understanding the Curse of Knowledge
The video below from the Explainer Academy was recently published on YouTube. It explains the curse of knowledge using a study by Elizabeth Newton. Feel free to share.
What You Can Do to Defeat the Curse
Consider every word. Sometimes a word that is completely natural to you can doom an explanation. For example, let's say you're a financial planner in a meeting with a young couple, and you mention "amortization". It sounds perfectly natural and clear to you. Your peers use the word all the time. But the couple's eyes glaze over. They nod, but don't really understand. You have the curse and it's preventing you from being clear and understandable.
Empathize. When you're preparing to explain something new, take a step back and think about your audience as individuals. Imagine being in their shoes and hearing your words for the first time. Then, go back to your materials with the audience in mind. what might confuse them? Can you present the idea more clearly?
Connect. Is it possible for you to have a quick conversation with someone in the target audience? If so, ask about specific words and examples you'd like to use. Are there alternatives that will sound more familiar?
Set expectations. If we simplify too much, it may sound condescending and that can kill the vibe. When you need to explain an idea for a group, provide a quick preface. Something like, "This subject is complicated and I'm going to explain it. I'll start with basics that many of you already understand. This will help ensure that we keep everyone on the same page."
How team members approach criticism and feedback can make a big difference in their success. This video explains how a team can use constructive criticism and feedback to accomplish a goal. Using a story about a robotics competition, this video teaches:
• The difference between constructive and destructive criticism
• How to provide feedback that is helpful and useful
• Why it is important to focus on a person’s work and not their personality
• How a team can be successful using constructive criticism and feedback
We now have 114 explainer videos in our library. Each video is designed to explain a subject clearly in a few minutes. Common Craft videos can help save time in your classroom, course, training session or presentation. Here are the most recent additions:
We recently created Video Packs, which make it easier to find and use related Common Craft videos. They share the same videos in our library, but are conveniently organized into a variety of categories.
Yesterday, we published a new pack called "Productivity and Communication". This video pack prepares learners for the workplace by explaining concepts behind common tools and ideas related to being productive and communicating clearly.
There are currently 15 videos in the Productivity and Communication Pack.
This video, 113th title, is now available for embedding, downloading, or displaying via the Common Craft video library. It's a part of our series on study skills and meant to help educators teach the concept of team work.
Using an example of a robot building competition, this video follows the story of two teams with different approaches to teamwork. Using their example, we can see what works, or not, for winning the competition. It teaches:
What all successful teams have in common
Why clear communication is more important than skills or experience
How to develop a sense of team strengths and weaknesses
I'm sure you've sat through presentations and felt confused and unmotivated. Often, it's not the information, but how it is presented. We want to help by sharing specific steps anyone can take to make their presentations clearer and more understandable.
When presenting information, it’s easy to be focused on sharing the right information. The problem is that information isn’t useful unless it is communicated clearly. This video shares useful tips that will help any presentation become more understandable. It teaches:
Why your presentation’s mission will increase clarity