If you consider yourself intelligent and well-educated, please read this post carefully.
Because when highly intelligent and educated people try to communicate and persuade, they too often commit two deadly sins that doom their effectiveness.
In fact, you’ve probably done it yourself.
The first sin? Saying too much.
And the second sin? Saying too little.
Wait... what? Aren’t those contradictory?
They might seem to be, but they really aren’t. And most surprisingly, the two sins are often committed at the same time.
In this post, I will reveal why that is, and then address why you, as an awesomely intelligent and educated communicator, can avoid these sins and get your important message across.
1st Sin: Saying too much
Think about the most intelligent and educated people you know. A college professor for instance, maybe an engineer, or a doctor. I’d bet that they've either read a lot, done a lot, or lived through a lot.
This gives them a gargantuan reserve of knowledge and experiences to draw from when talking, deciding and doing. But this can actually handicap their communication, because they have way too much to share.
And of course, the more pieces you have, the harder they are to arrange into a coherent story.
(In fact, lots of very smart people even openly hate on the idea of a simple, coherent story, because they’ve dealt with complexity their entire lives. This is how you end up with experts on TV trying to tell everyone how complex everything is, while half the audience is confused as hell, and the other half is playing Pokemon Go).
Instead of getting “In my 30 years as a community organiser, principle X has served me well time and again…”, you get this:
"I started with A, then I moved on to B, but then C happened, I think this means D, but you know what, E makes a ton of sense too, it all depends on F, G, H factors, which are connected by I principle, and ohhh you cannot forget J and K, which interact with X to cause G…"
Example: Scott McCloud’s TED Talk
Take, for example, this early TED talk given by comic book savant Scott McCloud (whose work I adore, by the way):
Almost everyone would agree that he’s extremely smart and knowledgeable, but not everyone can keep up with what he’s saying.
Here’s a snippet (starting from 6:00), where he lays out four ways of seeing things:
“In comics, it results in a formalist attitude to trying to understand how it works. Then there’s a more classical attitude which embraces beauty and craft, another one which believes in the pure transparency of content, then another one which emphasizes the authenticity of human experience. I even gave them names: - formalist, classicist, animist, and iconoclast.”
Then he added something that really illuminated things:
“Interestingly, it seems to correspond more or less to Jung’s four subdivisions of human thought - thinking, sensation, intuition, feeling - and they reflect the dichotomy of life and art, tradition and revolution, content and form, beauty and truth...”
That really cleared things up heh?
So in under 60 seconds, McCloud flung no fewer than sixteen ideas at the audience, and I’m really not sure any of it hit the mark. No matter, he instantly reloaded more rounds, ready to fire.
(Btw: That last “interestingly” is a favourite of well-read intellectuals. With one word they signal to you that any given idea in their heads is connected to a hundred others, every one of which they’ve already penned treatises on.)
2nd Sin: Saying too little
And here comes the really paradoxical part: as our Einsteins are droning on about 100 pieces of earth-shattering insight, they say too little about each one.
They’d glide over each insight with something like: “Of course it’s the central tenet of contemporary neoclassical liberal take on this, as you know.”
Uh… no, I DON’T know.
Scroll back and look at what Scott McCloud told us. He spent barely 60 seconds on 16 concepts, without giving any background info on any of them. That’s under 4 seconds for each idea, and none of them are simple.
And that’s the problem.
People with vast intelligence and knowledge often talk like everyone’s supposed to know the background to everything they’re saying.
When he casually refers to “Jung’s four subdivisions of human thought”, McCould is expecting us to go “Oh yeah! That’s amazing!” and not “Um… huh?"
Our Einsteins have known these things for so long, they’ve forgotten what it’s like to not know things.
This is essentially The Curse of Knowledge, as you know (See how easy this is?)
When fiercely intelligent - and impeccably educated - people communicate, they’re likely to mention too many things, yet give us too little info on each.
We walk way having learned that the speaker was pretty smart, but not much about how to see the world differently.
And that is really a darn shame.
How to make sure this doesn't happen to you
It’s pretty simple actually: Distill your information into one key idea, and make sure that your audience
- Actually cares about it, and
- Has the necessary info to understand it
It’s easy to say but tough to do, and takes tremendous discipline and practice.
Take a look at Adam Spencer's TED talk on, of all things, mathematics - not the easiest topic for even an educated audience. And yet he beautifully avoided tripping over the twin sins of saying too much and saying too little.
How did he do it? Well, he
- Focused on one topic in math: monster prime numbers
- Gave us the background info we needed to understand it - not too much, not too little, just right.
Seen people commit these twin sins? Been tripped up by them yourself? Got different tips and solutions?
Share 'em in the comments!
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