The Curse of Knowledge in Presentations

I like to think that I productively struggle with how to present my research. (Some may think that I just struggle.) I am always on the prowl for more clear, succinct, powerful ways to convey the same idea, both to keep it fresh for myself and to improve the quality of my explanations over time. And yet, sometimes, when I have to give presentations on the same topic repeatedly, I have a distinct, disorienting sense that the quality of my communication is going down…

Of course, when I am first learning about a topic, my first few explanations are probably a bit bumbling and possibly even contradictory. Explaining something to yourself (“self-explanation” in education literature) without an audience is one excellent way to debug your own thinking.

At some point, though, I pass the sweet spot on the side of the road and I cross over into Abstractsville. The slides on which I distilled the object of explanation into a few pithy statements, which looked so clear to me when I made them, cause my audience’s eyes to glaze over.

Recently, after recovering from giving another too-abstract practice talk, I picked up my copy of Steven Pinker’s book “The Sense of Style” and began, again, to read:

“The curse of knowledge is insidious… When we know something well, we don’t realize how abstractly we think about it. And we forget that other people, who have lived their own lives, have not gone through our idiosyncratic histories of abstractification.”

Understanding something deeply in a concise, abstract way is generally beneficial. However, simply knowing about the curse of knowledge is not enough to escape its effects. When communicating with an audience whose attention I barely have, my deep abstract knowledge only helps me if I use it to design a compelling hook and a clear, illustrative, concrete story.

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