AVOID THE CURSE OF KNOWLEDGE

Will Greenblatt

February 21, 2022

How NOT To Be Unclear And Boring

How many times have you listened to someone’s pitch, whether in a formal setting like a pitch competition or networking event, or even just someone explaining to you what they do at a dinner party, and thought: “I have NO idea what the f*ck this person is talking about.”

The truth is, the vast majority of the over 2000 entrepreneurs I’ve coached initially have this problem: their pitch is muddied with jargon, they make seemingly illogical leaps without explaining the necessary steps they took to get there, and they speak too quickly and mumbled to be properly understood or at least to make the listener REALLY feel the excitement of what they are proposing, which of course is the reaction you want from anyone listening to your pitch (by the way, I define “pitch” as ANY time you speak about your company, regardless of context). This is, by the way, not any comment on their intelligence or expertise; in fact, it may be true that the more you know about something, the worse you are at explaining it.

The phenomenon that explains this is what linguist Steven Pinker calls “the Curse of Knowledge.” This is the difficulty humans encounter when we assume, mostly unconsciously, that everyone else has the same information in their brains as we do.

We think everyone knows our jargon or acronyms, that our specific knowledge is common knowledge, and that our implications are clear without being spelled out. In a fantastic lecture found on YouTube called The Sense Of Style, Pinker illustrates the problem using a common study, famous from the novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (also one of my fiction must-reads): children are shown a box of candy, and then asked what’s inside. They reply (correctly) “candy,” after which the scientists empty the candy out and replace it with pencils. When asked again, the children respond that pencils are now inside the candy box. The interesting part comes when the children are asked what other kids will think are inside the candy box, not having seen the switch. Many children say “pencils” instead of “candy”, even though it’s the most likely answer, because the children cannot imagine others do not have the information they do.

This type of problem, while it mostly goes away as we grow up, stays with us into our adulthood. Steven Pinker in his lecture is focused on bad writing, but the same is true of bad speaking. What’s worse is that the problem is so widespread, our standards for what a good speech, presentation or pitch sounds like is so low that anyone who is not actively vomiting onstage is thought to have done a decent job.

In order to help bring the standard up, so we can all listen to more clear, compelling and passionate speakers, and to help YOU as an entrepreneur telling your story to the world, here is a step-by-step exercise you can do when practicing your pitch to avoid the curse of knowledge: 

1.     Type out your pitch as a ‘script’, and edit it

 Many clients worry that this will make them sound over-rehearsed and inauthentic, which can happen, but is a different problem that can be fixed by simply rehearsing properly (more on that in the next point).

If you write down your thoughts, you can scan the text with more of an outside eye, and you can edit any obvious confusing or unnecessary bits. Also, try using (part of) the Feynman technique, where you write your script as if a ten-year-old had to understand it. This will force you to simplify the language and even the ideas which almost always make for a better pitch in the long run, even if you eventually add back some of the necessary complex language. Finally, note that this doesn’t have to be the exact text you use every time you pitch, just a script to rehearse from and a way to hone your ideas. Next: 

2.     Say it OUT LOUD, 3 times, and keep editing

Saying the words out loud will give you another “outside” perspective, as you are able to hear what you’re saying while you practice, as well as “feel” what the words are like in your mouth. If you are having a really hard time pronouncing a long and complicated word, use a simpler synonym. After each time you finish, edit the script with the insights you gained from saying it out loud, and always see if there are words you can cut. The fewer words you can use to explain, the better.

3.    Print out your “finalized” script, circle the KEY WORDS in pencil, and rehearse it out loud twice more

Deciding on key words can be tricky; after all, if we suffer from the Curse of Knowledge, how can we properly decide which words are important to our audience? If choosing key words is difficult, a great starting point is to narrow your options down to nouns (e.g. computer, dollars, founder) verbs (e.g. make, do, grow, transform) and adjectives (e.g. massive, incredible, dangerous). These are called “content words” by English educators. Most of the other words are called “function words” as they are just there for grammar. So, try circling only the content words.

Also, decide which words are the most APPEALING to the audience. Any big numbers (28 MILLION people) impressive facts (first of its kind in the country) and emotionally charged words (the region has been devastated) are good candidates, but ultimately it is up to you to decide on what resonates.

For better results, get a co-founder, employee, or spouse to listen and give feedback on which words are most interesting. For BEST results, get a coach!

Once you’ve circled these words in pencil, try it out loud again, an additional 2 times (this will bring you halfway to the magic number 10, what TEDTalk coach Carmine Gallo says is the ideal number of times to rehearse any talk).

1.     The first time, practice EMPHASIZING the key words when you come to them by

a) slowing down,

b) raising your pitch,

c) getting louder and

d) enunciating more clearly (Emphasis = SLOWER, HIGHER, LOUDER, CLEARER).

Then, make a decision if the key words you circled feel right, and if not erase and add circles where necessary.

2.     Say it out loud a final time, and you’re done!

This exercise can (and SHOULD) be done in preparation for any big pitch, talk or even a self-intro for a panel discussion or podcast appearance you may have. You can also do Step 3, circling key words and rehearsing out loud, with ANY printed piece of text, like a passage from your favourite TED Talk, or your favourite movie monologue, or even a news article. This acts as a daily training exercise to help you avoid the Curse of Knowledge.

You have so many great ideas and valuable insights that your clients benefit from. Make sure you practice using this technique, as well as other exercises that I’ve posted about, so that no one misunderstands you, or fails to care about your ideas, ever again.

Please like, comment and share if you found this valuable, and let me know what you’d like to read about next! Also, share your favourite rehearsal techniques if you have them!

P.S. If you want to improve your pitch fast, check out my Powerful Pitch Bootcamp here!