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."
Imagine a group of students working together on a project. Each team member must share their work and have the rest of the team provide feedback. How this feedback is delivered and perceived is critical and may decide the fate of the team. When feedback is constructive, the team can be successful. When it’s destructive, the team may fall apart.
The question becomes: how do you teach constructive criticism and feedback? It’s a challenge because it’s not simply a set of skills, but a perspective. Once someone sees the big picture and how to be constructive, they can apply it in meaningful ways.
This is why we produced the video, “Constructive Criticism and Feedback Explained”. We believe that teamwork is both essential and difficult to explain. By playing this three-minute video for your audience, you can get everyone on the same page with the right perspective, and build a solid foundation for your teaching.
For a limited time, we are offering this video, “Constructive Criticism and Feedback” as a digital download with a Forever License. This means the video is yours to keep with unlimited views and no future obligations. We even get you started with a lesson plan! You can:
Add it to presentations
Upload it to Google Classroom or your class LMS
Display it in classrooms and online meetings
Use it anywhere you teach
There is no mystery. You can watch the entire video (with a watermark) before purchase. The download includes:
Constructive Criticism and Feedback (.mp4)
Constructive Criticism and Feedback, with captions in English (.mp4)
Lesson Plan with quiz and discussion questions (.pdf)
We now have 115 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:
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
Join Common Craft's Lee LeFever for an in-depth look at making simple animated videos using presentation software and screencasting.
This webinar is a follow-up to a recent event that introduced the COVID Communication Kit. The forthcoming webinar will use videos and visuals from the kit as a starting point for creating your own videos. Attendance of the previous event is not required.
In addition to receiving the COVID Communication Kit, attendees will learn:
A simple and affordable process for making animated videos
How to animate visuals for video scenes
How to use text animations that don't require a voice-over
How to create and edit simple visuals
How to edit an existing video
If you are looking for a quick and simple way to communicate clearly with video, this webinar will help you develop a new skill that can be applied immediately.