The Curse of Knowledge

I was in Croatia and Slovenia last week, celebrating my 30th wedding anniversary.

I have no idea where my wife decided to go. I’m kidding; we were there together.

Both are beautiful countries with nice people, quality beer, and lots of silent consonants. We had a terrific time.

When we arrived in Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana (pronounced: “Las Vegas”), we had to check into our Airbnb. This was more difficult than anticipated.

The problem was that while the apartment owner had emailed step-by-step instructions regarding how to find the lockbox, get the key, access the parking garage, locate the correct parking spot, and enter the apartment (in that order), they were long and intricate.

So much so, that the two formats he provided were either a 4-minute video or a 12-page PDF. I don’t like to complain, but this thing was more complicated than my day job.

You’ll be happy to learn that we did finally crack the code and get inside, and the apartment was everything he had promised.

But… it made me realize some important things to keep in mind when sharing content.

#1. Context Matters

The Airbnb instructions were very specific. But there was no introduction along with them – I had no overall sense of how the steps fit together or why they needed to happen in the order they did.

It was like following the instructions on how to assemble something in your house without knowing what the final outcome would be. (“Is this supposed to be a bed or a gas grill?”)

Likewise, when you develop and share content, it’s important to remember that your readers and listeners also may have no context regarding what’s happening within your area of specialty.

They don’t know what the key issues are, what things to watch out for, what matters most, or even what the acronyms of your industry mean.

So if you just jump right in and start spitting out “the answers” – even if what you have to say is valuable – you’ll lose a lot of people who have no idea what you are getting at.

#2. More Simple = More Better

To our Airbnb host’s credit, he was very specific. Every step along the way demonstrated what we needed to do.

The PDF was filled with photos. And while the video didn’t function three levels down in the parking garage (oops), it was ultimately very helpful to have images and not just words.

As professionals eager to impress others, we often do exactly the opposite.

We go out of our way to employ linguistic expressions that embody a higher degree of complexity and intricacy than is strictly requisite for the purpose of effectual transmission.

Communication is not the place to impress. Short sentences and simpler words work best.

#3. You Know More Than You Realize

The first time we had to get into that Airbnb? Total confusion. The second time and every time thereafter? Easy as could be.

Once you become expert at something, it’s hard to put yourself back into the shoes of a complete novice. There’s a strong tendency to gloss over details or omit important steps.

One more reason that when we share ideas or explain concepts – to readers, listeners, clients, baristas, etc. – it’s best to aim low and start slow, until and unless we are sure they are following.

Here’s the bottom line.

If you are in the business of selling a professional service, it’s important to get in the habit of developing your thoughts and sharing them with the world.

That goes a long way in helping people understand how you think and decide whether or not they want to connect, refer, or hire you.

But it all falls apart if they can’t figure out how to get through the front door.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Have you ever confused a bed with a gas grill? Send photos.
  2. What’s your favorite hard-to-pronounce city or town (please tell us how to say it correctly)?
  3. What are you expert in that you find difficult to explain?

Share your answers below…

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12 thoughts on “The Curse of Knowledge

  1. Jennifer Boyd

    My legal writing teacher taught me this rule:
    1. Tell them what you’re going to tell them.
    2. Tell them.
    3. Tell them what you told them.

    Your blog today reminded me of that advice. I think it works well.

  2. Jean Feingold

    I agree with Jennifer Boyd’s writing teacher. I do much of that in writing feature articles for trade magazines, with one addition – I like a big finish.

    No thoughts on beds or grills. However, Florida is full of towns with hard to pronounce names. Nearby is Micanopy (mick-CAN-oh-pea). Farther south is Kissimmee (kih-SIMM-mee). Then there’s Dunedin (DUH-nee-den) and Matlacha (MAT-la-shay). And the county I live in is Alachua, which is pronounced “AH-leh-chew-ah” when you’re referring to the county and “AH-leh-chew-aye” when referring to the same named town.

    Once I wrote an ebook on rapid prototyping after learning enough about it to become an expert. Years later I’ve forgotten most of what I knew (and the field has surely evolved), so I couldn’t explain it now.

  3. Lindsay Gower

    I’m the one my friends call to put together their stuff — desks, chairs, tables. Even the diagrams seem to scare them Beds? Gas grills? Not yet, but I can hardly wait!

    Where I live, YGNACIO Valley Road runs for miles through town and I went to YGNACIO Valley High School (class of ’71). How people pronounce Ygnacio let you know if they are residents or new in town. Newbies pronounce it correctly! They say Ig-nah-see-o. If you live here, you say Ig-nay-sho.

    I’ve been a Technical Writer for 25 years. Technical writers need to be *not* an expert. Where I worked, the experts — engineers — would give me long, convoluted write-ups of the new features. Often, they’d answer my questions with “The user will understand.” No, the user won’t, if I don’t translate “engineering speak” into short, accurate, uncomplicated English. I have to take care that I don’t become so tech-savvy that I can’t explain what’s going on to anyone slightly less savvy.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Very interesting about being the one your friends call on to put things together. I often ask clients that exact question when helping them narrow their focus and find a niche. Often the things we are “famous” for among friends indicates a natural ability that few other people have. When you make that fundamental to a business focus, it’s both enjoyable and hard to compete with!

  4. Dana

    Great post!

    My favorite hard to pronounce place is Champoeg, Oregon. It’s pronounced shampoo-ie (shampoo with an E sound at the end). Oregon has another good one – the wine region of Willamette Valley has a slogan to help you pronounce it – “It’s Willamette Dammit!”

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Haha, great slogan! Here in Boston, the winner is definitely Worcester, pronounced “Whuh-stah.”

  5. Jennie Jolly

    I’m bending question #2 a bit because my favorite name is a river in Mississippi… the Tchoutacabouffa River. The locals told me they pronounce it “chit-uh-kuh-buff” which is easier than what I thought with “ta-choo-ta-ka-bouffa.” So many crazy names in MS, but after living there for 14 years, they almost seemed normal!

  6. Kathy Pinnell

    The Boston area also has Quincy, pronounced “Quinzy”, and of course Peabody is pronounced “PEE buh dee”…..wicked weeuhd, huh?


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