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The Expert Syndrome and How It’s Killing Your Readership

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You know a lot in your industry.

In fact, you  pride yourself as an expert. After all, you wouldn’t be blogging if you knew nothing about your niche, right?

And being the expert, you have the tendency to communicate in abstract words and jargon. People can’t blame you, it’s your language. It just comes naturally. It’s the result of having lived and breathed your subject for a long time.

But eventually, you wonder why you feel you’re not being understood or your post is not being received the way you want it to be.

Sounds like you are having the Expert Syndrome.

But don’t despair. You’re not alone. Many bloggers, particularly those who have a subject matter expertise, fall into this trap.

The Curse That’s Afflicting 90% of Bloggers

In Made to Stick, authors Chip and Dan Heath discuss what experts call “the curse of knowledge”. It explains that, “Once you know something, it’s hard to imagine not knowing it”.

Experts, those who have spent a lot of time and have dived deep into their subject for a long time, automatically speak in obscure vagueness. They are “cursed” by their knowledge. As a result, they’re unable to communicate their message in a non-expert perspective. There’s a disconnect between their specialized knowledge and the “unknowing” mind of their audience.

In 1990, then doctorate student Elizabeth Newton conducted an experiment showing how the curse of knowledge works. In a game, she assigned participants to one of the two rolesthe “tapper” and the “listener”.

The premise of the game is simple: The tapper will be asked to pick a song and tap its rhythm for the listener. The listener’s job is to guess the song that is being tapped correctly.  It’s also worth mentioning that the songs that were asked to tap were very simple ones like “Happy Birthday” and “The Star Spangled Banner”

All in all, the result showed that out of the 120 songs that were tapped, only 3 were guessed correctly.

But that’s not what makes the study noteworthy. Rather, it’s the assumption of the tappers. Before the listeners guess the title of the songs, Newton asked the tappers to predict the odds that their listeners will guess the song correctly.

They guessed that for every 2 tapped song, 1 will be guessed correctly. Yet the prediction rate was a measly 1 in 40.

Even as the tappers tap ambiguous rhythms on the table, they can hear the song in their heads.  On the other hand, it’s all cryptic to listeners, like trying to decipher a language unknown to them.

More interestingly, the tappers, given their knowledge of the song’s title, are baffled about why their listeners couldn’t guess the songit’s so obvious, how could they not recognize the tune?

This experiment laid out the premise that when we know something well, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like not knowing it.

The Curse of Knowledge in the Real-World Setting

CurseofKnowledge

If you have some expertise in a particular subject, you’ve probably developed the curse of knowledge without realizing it.

And it’s not just you. It’s everywhere. Here are some examples:

1. The retailer of hiking shoes. On their website, their product descriptions include intelligent-sounding words like “highly insulating lining”, “two density EVA”, and “Ceplex Pro membrane”.

Meanwhile, they’re all irrelevant to the hiker who is browsing for shoes. He doesn’t care about two density EVA or Ceplex Pro membrane. He wants to know if the shoes provide good support on slippery terrain. Or if it’s light enough to allow him to run and reach the camp before nightfall.

2. The supervisor who urges his team of salespeople to “Think outside the box”. But the guys have heard that flat, meaningful phrase for a thousand times.  The words merely breeze into one ear and out from the other. It’s opaque. Intangible. Uninspiring.

3. The web developer who talks to the restaurant owner about a responsive and mobile-friendly website. He goes on to the bolts and nuts of its development and the awesome features it will have. The restaurateur on the other hand doesn’t want a website for the sake of having one. He wants to knowwill a nice website help me get more customers? How?

4. The start up entrepreneur who has an idea for a super complex product and pitches it to an investor. Investor on the other hand asks “What need would this product fulfill?” “How would it make people’s lives easier?”

5. The accountant explaining tax returns, profit margins and other accounting lingo to the CEO. The latter on the other hand wants to know “How profitable am I this year compared to last year?” or “What utilities should we minimize to cut expenses?”

The point is, the curse of knowledge is more common than we could imagine. It’s not that communicators intentionally speak lofty words to make themselves look smart. For sure, they want to get their points across as clearly as possible. It just so happens that most people, experts in particular, have the tendency to swim inside their insider knowledge and forget to look at things from a non-expert’s point of view.

How to Beat the Expert Syndrome

As a blogger, it’s important that you are at sync with your audience. It doesn’t matter whether you are writing about rocket science or gardening. If your topic involves uncommon knowledge, you should take extra effort to describe it in the most transparent way. Here are some ways to do that.

Adapt to the level of expertise your audience possess

The first step is to be really clear on your reader’s level of knowledge on the topic. This will determine how much jargon as well as simplification you should allow in your content. The three types of readers you’ll typically have are:

Newbies: This type of audience have zero knowledge about your topic and needs hand-holding. When writing for them, steer clear of technical terms. If you really need to include them, always explain these terms as you go.

Intermediate: This group has a basic knowledge of your topic but still has a lot more to learn. Allow some technical concepts. But as with newbies, explain these terms as you go to make sure they get the picture throughout.

Experts: These are your peers who typically share the same level of knowledge as yours. For this group, you can choose to speak in your insider language but remember that ideas expressed clearly still trump overly intelligent descriptions.

Spell it out

Be as concrete as possible. Look at how your solution applies in real-world scenarios. Use a good amount of examples and anecdotes. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of stories. They turn abstract ideas into something people can relate to.

When you use stories, your readers will go from “Huh?” to “Okay, I get it…”. This is the reason why companies use case studies that tell how their products or services have helped their customers.

Explain one at a time

Explaining an abstract concept is already hard enough. Explaining one too many is disastrous. It overwhelms both you and your readers. In the end, it’s a lose-lose situation.

Consider picking just one angle out of a broader subject and explain that in detail. Reserve the other concepts for future posts.

For instance, if you write about investing, don’t write about the subject in one go. It’s too broad a topic and a surefire way to intimidate readers. Instead, find an angle. Perhaps you can write about how to invest in mutual funds conservatively for slow but long-term profits.

Combine technical knowledge with visuals

You probably already know the importance of using images and graphics in your content. But this is more important if you are explaining something that is not common sense.  A great example is this animation which nicely explained what would otherwise be an unintelligible, uninspiring data about coke.

[vimeo 33402623 w=500 h=281]

Realize that plain English is the ultimate sophistication

“Good writing is like a windowpane.” ~ George Orwell

In this analysis by Shane Snow of Contently, the author takes a look at the readability of the most popular books ever published as well as those that are not so popular like academic papers.

It reveals that Ernest Hemingway, one of the most celebrated writers in history, writes in 4th grade level. Similarly, other bestselling authors like J.K. Rowling and Cormac McCarthy write below 9th grade level.

analytics

It argues that plain English is a common trait among well-received books. These were contrasted to academic papers which are difficult to read and unsurprisingly, seldom engage or excite readers.

But how do you write, in Orwell’s words, like a windowpane? One way is to trim long sentences. Many writing coaches recommend limiting your sentences to no more than 14 words. If it’s longer than that, consider shortening it. This will help you get your point across more quickly.

Additionally, use simple words. I always make it a rule that if a word would generally require my reader to consult the dictionary, I would replace that with a simpler version. Again, that depends on the type of audience you have.

Also, use the power of metaphors and similes. It’s amazing how they can magically turn an abstract idea into something that’s familiar, relatable, and even emotional.

One way to make sure that your writing is clear and succinct is by using a tool called Hemingway. This app checks your writing for complex wordings and long sentences. Aim for a score of 9 and below for a crisp, concise writing that packs a punch.

Bring an outsider on board

This person will spell out your message in a way that makes sense to your audience.

Many companies are already doing this. For instance, when it comes to developing marketing content, some owners find the need to work with a freelance writer, ideally someone who has never been involved in the operations before, to translate their technical work-speak into something more simplified.

Depending on the technical nature of your subject, you may want to consider hearing from someone who is not as deeply involved in your subject as you are.

For example, if you blog about website development, ask someone who is just getting their hands wet on WordPress. What task do they find most challenging? What is it like trying to build a website for the first time? What is something they hope they could learn in half the time it usually takes?

In short, an outsider is always a great source of insights and topic ideas. They can view the subject in a different light than you do.

Break Through the Wall of Ambiguous Work-speak and Express Yourself more Vividly

As an expert, your task is not just to educate, but persuade.  After all, the blogosphere is already full of content teaching about everything under the sun.

To stand out from the crowd, you need to speak in a language your audience understands.

Maybe you know all the advanced, high-sounding, unintelligible terms in your topic. But your readers don’t care. What they care about is how your solution can make their life better.

And that applies to every piece of content that you put out. So follow these tips and start mastering how to dodge the curse of knowledge. Your audience will thank you for it.

How do you express yourself clearly to your readers? Let us know in the comments below!

Images: Ruth Hartnup, Vernacular, Contently