This post was translated and adapted from “Weniger schlecht über IT schreiben” by Christina Czeschik and Matthias Lindhorst
We’ve all been there.
Trying to explain something we feel is mind-numbingly simple to someone who’s just not getting it.
“Okay, grandpa, first open the camera app… click on the button with the picture of the camera on it… that button… no, that one… yes, there you go”.
This problem is only amplified when we’re talking about our profession or area of expertise — or even worse, when writing about it.
Too often we find ourselves trying to explain a certain technology or a specialized skill, only to be met with vacant expressions. The result? We just stop trying to explain — “They’re not going to understand anyways, so what’s the point?”
Is it everyone just really stupid? Are you just really smart?
Probably neither (at no insult to your intelligence). Instead, it’s possible (read: highly likely) that you’re suffering from a widespread affliction known as the curse of knowledge.
Nobody is immune to the curse of knowledge
Psychologist Elizabeth Newton’s 1990 study demonstrates it best. Study participants were split into two groups: tappers and listeners. The tappers would tap out the rhythm of well-known songs (think “Happy Birthday” and “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”), while the listeners would try to guess the songs.
The tappers were a very optimistic bunch — they guessed that listeners would guess the song correctly 50% of the time. Much to their chagrin, listeners only guessed the song correctly 2.5% of the time.
This is the curse of knowledge at its finest. The tappers possessed knowledge that the listeners did not — the melody of the song — and could not fathom that, without this knowledge, the listeners wouldn’t be able to guess the song.
How do I know if I’m cursed?
We all suffer from the curse of knowledge. Most of us are very knowledgeable about our professions. Indeed, we may spend all day talking to other professionals about it, slinging around jargon like it’s nobody’s business — to the point that we can’t even identify which words are considered ‘jargon’ because they’ve become part of our daily vocabulary.
Consider the first sentence on the Wikipedia page for “Server (Computing)”.
In computing, a server is a computer program or a device that provides functionality for other programs or devices, called “clients“. This architecture is called the client–server model, and a single overall computation is distributed across multiple processes or devices.
A non-expert’s impression of this sentence can be summed up in a single word: “Wut.”
Bradley Mitchell, on the other hand, a former writer for Lifewire, does a much better job at explaining what a computer server is for the laypeople in his article “Servers are the heart of the internet”:
A server is a computer designed to process requests and deliver data to another computer over the internet or a local network.
Thus, the question arises: how can the very knowledgeable among us better transmit our knowledge to non-professionals?
How to speak ‘normal-people’
How do you explain technical or highly advanced topics to people who don’t have the same knowledge or background as you do?
You have to strike a delicate balance between treating your audience as if they’re five, and treating them as if they also spend the better part of their day absolutely engrossed in your industry.
This is no easy task. But, there are measures you can take:
Always explain in full
Many of us are afraid that we’ll accidentally insult our readers’ intelligence by explaining things too simply. However, it is far better to make your readers feel smart by telling them things they already know — than to make them feel dumb by explaining in a way that goes over their heads.
Make sure it passes the “mom test”
Can your mom understand what you wrote? Great, passed the mom test.
Say no to acronyms and jargon
That means SaaS, MarTech, DevOps, and GHGs. It may seem like common knowledge, but probably only common knowledge to people who live in the same world as you. Does DevOps pass the mom test? Probably not.
That doesn’t mean you absolutely can’t write acronyms — you just need to define them first, as in Software as a Service (SaaS).
The same is true for jargon. Again, when it doubt, the mom test is a great metric to fall back on.
Write for a real person
Pretend as if you are writing for an actual person. Imagine your intelligent younger sibling sitting in front of you who has little background in your area of expertise — but is by no means stupid. How would you explain this topic to them?
Ask for help
When in doubt, ask for help. Sometimes we are so absorbed in our business or our specialty, that we can’t figure out how to write about it for an audience of “normal people”.
Usually, anyone who is a student of your area of expertise is going to do a much better job of explaining it to other non-experts. Because they haven’t forgotten what it feels like to be ignorant.
This describes our staff at Intellicore Press. We specialize in helping the technologically gifted translate their really cool ideas and business plans into a language that non-tech people can understand — in a way that they can appreciate how cool the technology is too.
For more free resources for start-ups or technology professionals, check out our blog.
Or — do you already know you need some help communicating? Take a look at our services and see if we can help!