Have you ever had an experience where a speaker is totally misunderstood by an audience? When the whole presentation only produces question marks and puzzled looks? When none of the jokes seems to land well in the room? It’s possibly down to “the curse of knowledge”. An unpleasant situation that even the most experienced speakers can find themselves in.

Podium met lege zaal in afwachting van spreker

The curse of knowledge is easy to demonstrate. Take a pencil and start tapping out a beat on the desk in front of you. Not just anything, choose something simple like “Humpty Dumpty”. Without singing or humming along. Whoever is in the room with you – with the exception of Humpty himself – will have no idea which song you are recreating. No notion whatsoever. Even while it is unmistakeable to you. The rhythm is so obvious that you can see all the King’s horses trotting about pathetically, as clear as day. The substantial difference in perception between the broadcaster (you) and the receiver (your puzzled colleague) is referred to as the curse of knowledge’.

I had a teacher who was so enthusiastic about teaching economics that he assumed – as entirely self-evident – that his students understood everything he taught with immediate effect. However I did not belong to the small group of students that studied the lesson materials in advance. So in his classes I learned to draw action heroes and wild horses. His proclamations completely passed me by. This was how my career in economics was affected by ‘the curse’So now I train speakers.

Start of ECTH conference at World Forum the Hague

How can you arm yourself against ‘the curse of knowledge’ as a speaker? Practice your story regularly for a group of listeners. If your presentation is about your industry, you would think, “I’ll ask my colleagues”. However do beware: your story is relatable for them. So ask your friends or family – those outside of your industry. Do also watch out for their loved ones’ constructive criticism – that’s when you start losing contact with your audience.

This week I am training a group of PhD students for their first appearance at an international science congress in Marseille. It is my task to be the critical listener, as I am not hindered by an excess of knowledge of their research into thrombosis, thank goodness. There simply must be someone who can protect them against ‘the curse of knowledge’. (Read here how that went two years ago)