How To Overcome the Obstacle Of Expertise
“The main cause of incomprehensible prose is the difficulty of imagining what it’s like for someone else not to know something that you know”. — Steven Pinker, Harvard University linguistic professor.
Many clever people’s writing is confusing. For example, read this paragraph by the PhD Barbara Vinken. It’s highlighted in the newspaper The Atlantic:
“The work of the text is to literalize the signifiers of the first encounter, dismantling the ideal as an idol. In this literalization, the idolatrous deception of the first moment becomes readable. The ideal will reveal itself to be an idol. Step by step, the ideal is pursued by a devouring doppelganger, tearing apart all transcendence. This de-idealization follows the path of reification, or, to invoke Augustine, the path of carnalization of the spiritual. Rhetorically, this is effected through literalization. A Sentimental Education does little more than elaborate the progressive literalization of the Annunciation.”
I have zero idea what PhD Barbara Vinken is saying. Yet, like Vinken, I am guilty of writing paragraphs which only made sense to me. What’s worse, I didn’t recognise they didn’t make sense to other people—so I never fixed them. It’s easy to notice when we read confusing writing, but much harder to recognise when we’re writing it. As a result, confusing writing appears in business documents, academic journals and even newspapers.
Steven Pinker, a Harvard linguist professor, refers to this problem as “The Curse of Knowledge”. When we have so much knowledge on a particular topic, we can’t imagine what it is like to not know what we know. It causes us to write with too much jargon and abstractions.
Part of this problem comes from the limitations of our empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand the mind of someone else. It is easier to empathise with people who are like us, rather than people who are different.
I empathise with men more than women, with Australians more than Austrians, with businessmen more than with academics, and with fitness freaks more than fast-food fanatics.
Once you know something, it is difficult to imagine what it is like to not know it. We internalise jargon and complex concepts so they feel basic to us. Yet they remain complex to others. Because they feel natural to us, we assume they feel natural to the reader.
For example, a computer programmer searching for a “bug” is using jargon. Other computer programmers understand he’s looking for a technical error in the code of his program. Because the term bug is so obvious to computer programmers, it is easy for them to think everyone knows what “bug” means. Yet if many people were told there was a bug in their computer they’d reach for some insect spray.
We’re all like computer programmers. We all have a hobby or career where we use jargon, abbreviations, and technical language. We assume other people understand the jargon we use. But often they don’t. People will nod their head in agreement so they don’t seem stupid, rather than admitting they have no idea what your jargon actually means.
Cricketers wonder why the police are called after they brag they’ve “Smacked three bowlers with hook shots”. Seamstresses wonder why someone tells them a story when they ask for some yarn. And chefs wonder why people drag them to their great-grandparents grave after hearing they’ve cured dead animals.
Our jargon is confusing because we have more information than our reader. Our education and experiences are different to theirs. If we were to write for ourselves, focusing on what we know, it would be useless to our readers. It is like talking Chinese to a Brazilian.
Our greatest difficulty, and the greatest opportunity, is recognising what our readers know—so we can write for them.
6 Tactics for Clear Communication
1. Match the Complexity Level of Your Audience
“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated”. — Confucius, Chinese philosopher.
The amount of abstraction, jargon, and complexity you can use depends on your readers. You can use complex computer language if you’re writing for a magazine that is only read by high-level computer programmers. It’s not jargon to them.
However, while computer jargon may fit in a computer magazine, generally we’re better off assuming our audience won’t understand our jargon. This ensures our writing is accessible to everyone who reads it. It is better to include than alienate.
The New York times published an article about the internet’s effect on the 2016 American presidential election; “How the Internet Is Loosening Our Grip on the Truth”. It is an interesting and well-written article. Yet it is confusing for people who don’t understand social media, or for that matter, the internet.
In contrast to the New York Times, Vox.com explains basic concepts so anybody visiting their site can understand each article. For example, they published a piece; “The internet, explained.” It removes all complexity and describes what the internet is, how it was created, and how it operates.
It’s a more basic piece than any article published by the New York Times, but it makes the rest of Vox’s news on the internet more understandable to every reader.
2. Write With Specific Details
“Details create the big picture”. — Sanford I. Weill, former chief executive and chairman of Citigroup.
We are human. Unlike computers, our brains haven’t evolved to accumulate abstract facts. We are suited to communicating with conversation and understanding from imagery. We are more chimp than computer. More primate than PC.
We must make our writing feel natural to our readers. Reading must feel like a conversation that helps us see.
To do that, we must use conversational language that evokes concrete imagery. For example, consider the differences between abstract and concrete:
Abstract: The primate fell from a tree.
Concrete: The ape fell from an apple tree.
The specific details communicated in a conversational tone provide the concrete imagery that allows you to visualise the sentences. And sentences we can visualise are easier for our primate brains to comprehend.
3. Seek Feedback
“Systems of information-feedback control are fundamental to all life and human endeavour… Everything we do as individuals, as an industry, or as a society is done in the context of an information-feed-back system”. — Jay W. Forrester, Systems Theorist and Professor at MIT.
Whenever we read our own work, it is always tainted by our own curse of knowledge. To counter the curse of knowledge we use feedback. You can get feedback from your colleagues, your family, friends and trusted readers. The most valuable trait of someone giving you feedback is that they are not you.
Of course, the more similar they are to your audience the better. But any feedback is more valuable than no feedback. And remember, receiving feedback doesn’t mean you have to follow it. As Steven Pinker writes, “Good prose is never written by a committee”.
Imagine your writing as a marble statue. When you follow comment or feedback, you’re chipping away at your marble statue. A chip here and there will make your statue look more refined. But following too many comments—making too many chips—will leave your statue looking like it’s crafted by a gorilla with a sledgehammer.
While feedback from others is crucial, you can also provide feedback on your own work. But not immediately.
Immediately after writing something, you’re biased. Having put in the hard work of crafting ideas and sentences, you see them as better than they are.
By waiting a few days, or even better; weeks, your writing begins to feel like someone else wrote it. You aren’t emotionally connected to your sentences and you can view your writing with less bias. You can identify sections to rewrite, sentences to delete, and ideas to clarify. And of course you’ll find sections which felt brilliant when you wrote them, but on reflection are complete rubbish (at least that’s what happens to me).
4. Write Rewrite
“I’ve found the best way to revise your own work is to pretend that somebody else wrote it and then rip the living shit out of it”. — Don Roff, novelist.
We write sentences as each thought occurs to us. But the sentence you write first is rarely the most useful sentence for your reader. To find the most useful sentence for our reader, we must write our sentences from our reader’s perspective.
For example, Hemingway rewrote the last page of A Farewell To Arms 39 times.
5. Hire an Editor
“So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.” — Dr Seuss, children’s book writer.
Editors spend their entire working lives ensuring writing is suitable for an audience. They are aware of the frequent traps writers fall into, your audience’s perspective (if they’re an editor worth their salt), and they refine your ideas. Editors are professional feedback providers.
And you don’t have to be writing a novel to benefit from an editor. If you’re writing a blog for your business you can make use of a copy editor. Or if you’re crafting a media release you can get your PR team to edit it for you.
6. Continuously ask “Would Joe Bloggs Understand that?”
“If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.” — Albert Einstein, theoretical physicist.
Joe Bloggs is the everyman. The layman. The average person with an average education. When you write something clearly, Joe Bloggs can understand it.
If you find that you can’t write something so clearly that Joe Bloggs can understand it, it is an indicator you don’t understand it as well as you need to. So you need to do more research.
The physicist Richard Feynman had a unique ability to explain complex physics concepts. Yet even he understood we can’t explain what we don’t understand.
Feynman’s colleague asked him for help; “Explain to me, so that I can understand it, why spin one-half particles over Fermi-Dirac statistics”. Feynman replied, “I’ll prepare a freshman level lecture on it.”
A few days later, Feynman came back to him and said “I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t reduce it to freshman level. That means we don’t understand it.”
If you don’t understand it, you can’t explain it.
It is easy to fool ourselves that we are clearly communicating—because we understand what we write. But clear communication only occurs when the reader understands us. Their understanding is our responsibility.
We must never blame our readers for the curse of knowledge. In the sentiment of Richard Feynman, if we cannot reduce it so it’s easy to understand, it is because we don’t understand it.
This article draws directly from Harvard University’s linguistic professor Steven Pinker‘s’ ideas in his book; The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.