How to be Clearly Understood When Speaking at Work
“So,” says Tom, “did that make sense?”
Tom is giving you a tour of the proprietary software you’ll be using at your new job. It’s your first day. Tom’s on your team. He’s been asked to give you an introduction to the program.
“Yeah,” you say, “definitely makes sense.” But that’s a lie.
Inside, you know nothing clicked, nothing stuck. You’re not incompetent. You’re just new. You’re inexperienced, unfamiliar—and Tom is moving quickly. You’re in a too-much-too-fast situation.
We’ve all been there.
“Okay, perfect,” says Tom, “because this next part is where it gets tricky.”
Tom fires off a sentence that makes you feel small.
“Actually,” you interject, “can we go over that last piece again?”
“That one,” you say, pointing to a phrase on the monitor.
Tom unleashes another jargon-laden explanation that goes cleanly over your head.
We’ve all been there:
We’ve all fallen victim to The Curse.
Let me explain: Tom, in this scenario, is cursed.
He’s afflicted by a cognitive bias called The Curse of Knowledge, which causes communication issues.
“Cursed” people have trouble explaining complicated concepts that they, personally, know a lot about. A cursed communicator has, in effect, forgotten what it’s like to know nothing about their area of expertise.
In their book, Made to Stick, the Heath Brothers offer another example:
“Think of a lawyer who can’t give you a straight, comprehensible answer to a legal question.
His vast knowledge and experience renders him unable to fathom how little you know. So when he talks to you, he talks in abstractions that you can’t follow. And we’re all like the lawyer in our own domain of expertise.”
Have you ever been Cursed?
You, your employees, and everyone you know.
To be clear: The Curse is a common phenomenon. We’re all susceptible to it.
It’s especially common at work, where 1) knowledge and 2) skill gaps are both in abundance. A room full of interdisciplinary specialists, for example, creates a lot of opportunity for the bias to sprout, as though in a petri dish.
The Curse puts up communication walls, restricting productivity and, in turn, progress at work. It should be avoided at all costs.
Awareness: Being present and mindful, in tune with what you’re saying and how your audience is reacting, is a potent remedy. But how does one do that?
Below are several key tips that’ll help you keep The Curse at bay when speaking:
1. Eliminate jargon.
If people don’t understand the words you’re using, they’ll eventually tune out. They’ll be there in body, but their brain will be in a place less stressful, less annoying.
Cut your losses: Save the jargon—the fancy abstractions, proprietary terms, and industry acronyms—for your peers. Train yourself to speak simply, colloquially, with everybody else.
TIP: Try not using acronyms.
Don’t use an acronym unless you’re sure your audience can identify it. Why risk not being understood?
This is a quick, easy win. Make it a habit, then move on.
2. Tell stories.
Stories help us experience the world through a different lens. When we hear or see a story played out, we subconsciously inject ourselves into it, into the characters’ circumstances. In doing so, we grow.
People love stories because they put things into perspective, providing a reference point that helps us conceptualize things more easily.
Good stories are effective at capturing and keeping attention. Good stories are also well understood.
TIP: Try saying “For example” more often.
Listeners perk up when they hear these words because they often precede a story (read: more context and detail).
Saying “For example” also give you an opportunity to slow down and clarify, ensuring that your audience is with you.
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3. Know your audience.
The more you know about a person or group of people, the easier it’ll be to connect the dots for them, to make sense in their mind.
You’re audience’s base knowledge should inform how you structure and present your information. It should inform the stories you tell as well as the jargon you use, if any.
The goal, after all, is comprehension, which has nothing to do with you and everything to do with your audience. When you speak, keep the needs of others top-of-mind.
TIP: Try asking questions first.
Before getting into it, ask questions that’ll help you understand your audience’s background and familiarity with the subject. Gain some perspective. Orient yourself. Doing so will help you appeal to your audience.
Remember: Successful fishermen cater their bait to their intended catch.
Too long; didn’t read:
The more we know about a subject, the more difficult it can be for us to explain it to a neophyte.
This phenomenon is the product of a cognitive bias known as The Curse of Knowledge. It can lead to a breakdown in communications, hindering collaboration and productivity. It’s especially common at work.
We’re all susceptible to The Curse and its consequences, which is why it pays to know the antidote.