“What good is it to know the answer if no one understands you?”
These hearings are often high stakes, political, and deeply technical.
It was my job to coach the scientists, doctors and statisticians to explain their data and findings with clarity and conciseness.
I had the chance to work with many excellent human beings who were brilliant experts in their fields, but who typically struggled to give answers to questions that didn’t create more questions or confusion.
In this work, I learned just how hard it is to make complicated information simple enough for anyone to understand.
Their answers were either too detailed, too convoluted, or overly generic.
The deeper your knowledge is in a subject, the harder it is to figure out what details are important to your audience.
When you suffer from the “curse of knowledge,” there are no simple questions. People who experience this probably have been struggling with the complexity of these problems for so long that they can’t remember what’s it like to not understand.
This leads to unnecessary complexity.
I sometimes think of the expression “seeing the forest for the trees” in terms of how we tend to get too detailed and forget the bigger picture.
The expert often gives too much detail, which can be like describing a forest by giving the Latin name for each tree. It’s good to know the details, but they are worthless to a general audience without a proper context.
The opposite issue also occurs when people overuse vague metaphors to describe complicated systems. Instead of calling it a “forest” they might say that it is like “a herd of buffalo standing in the field.” This is poetic, but it doesn’t lend any insight into what a forest is.
Most people in business don’t use bison analogies (that’s just me, apparently). What you’re most likely to hear in the US are vague football references to capture the situation (“running out the clock,” “extra point,” “block and tackle” “you’ve got to quarterback this”), or motor vehicle images (“downshift,” “change lanes,” “well-oiled machine,” “get on the bus”). There are probably hundreds of generic images that people use in business to explain what they want to happen, but that are too vague or diffuse to actually give guidance.
The problem with these analogies (other than being clichés) is that they not only don’t illuminate the situation, they also give the listener the impression that they understand.
1. Be curious about what you know.
The first step to being clearer with the details is to become more aware of what you actually know.
I never feel quite so confident that I understand a topic as I do after reading an 800 word HBR article. The superficiality of the article helps me feel confident in what I understand.
Turns out, this is an actual psychological phenomenon called the “Dunning Kruger Effect.”
Oddly enough, this study also shows that the more you know, the less certain you might feel about that knowledge (until you reach a point of expertise).
I believe that this leads many people to self-doubt, especially when challenged on a topic or a strategy. The more you know about a topic, the harder it is to choose which details will show people what you know. The result is either too vague or too detailed.
If you can take a step back and ask yourself, what do I really know about this, you might find that there are certain facts or “truths” that you can rely on. This gives you a foundation on which to build a response.
For example, imagine you’re a car engineer and someone asks you why you don’t design more cars out of stainless steel.
What do you say?
The short answer is that you could do that (it’s been done), but the longer answer begins with what you actually know about stainless steel. Namely, that it’s expensive and hard to work with. The more you recognize what you know as an engineer about metals and how they can be used for different machinery, the easier it is to begin to articulate a “why.”
2. Be curious about what your audience knows.
To take this example of stainless steel cars a little further, it’s important to ask yourself what the audience knows about car manufacturing.
Most people have never worked in automobile manufacturing and don’t know what it takes to design, build and sell them at scale.
If your audience doesn’t know much about car manufacturing and your answer is that stainless steel is too difficult a material to work with, they might not understand why this matters.
This leaves your audience with two options.
- They trust you blindly as the expert.
- They disregard you and think you don’t know what you’re talking about.
The second one is obviously a problem, but the first one ought to also be a concern.
If people agree without understanding, then they aren’t a partner with you in the decision.
If you’re willing to be curious about what they might know about this topic, then you can start there. It helps to begin from a place of the least informed audience member and work out from there.
The goal is a mutual understanding.
It’s so difficult to influence others and to lead them through change if you aren’t able to communicate from a shared understanding.
The better you are at understanding what you know and how you know it, the easier it is to talk about it.
Likewise, the more aware you are of what your audience might know and understand about the topic, the likelier it is that you can offer important foundational context that helps them follow along.
The ultimate goal is to share what you know and what you understand in a way that your audience can both understand and appreciate.
When we are successful at doing that, anything is possible.