Present Your Ideas: Overcome the 'Curse of Knowledge'

Once you learn something, you lose the ability to remember what it was like to not know it. This is what Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker refers to as "the curse of knowledge," and overcoming it is the key to becoming a better trainer, teacher, and leader. 


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Why is it so hard to give an effective presentation? How can you improve? According to TED curator Chris Anderson, the reason so many of us struggle with teaching, training, and spreading ideas is because we're afflicted with what Harvard psycholinguist (and Big Think expert) Steven Pinker calls "the curse of knowledge." In the following Big Think Edge preview, Anderson explains how rethinking presentations as small journeys will help you better convey messages to an audience:

Pinker's curse to which Anderson refers is based on an idea simultaneously simple and complex: Once you learn something, you lose the ability to remember what it was like to not know it. It's simple because it makes sense; you can't just willingly unknow something. It's complex because its consequences are far-reaching. Like its logical cousin hindsight bias, the curse of knowledge is characterized by memory distortion. And it's due to memory distortion that you fail to empathize with those who don't yet know what you know.

Learning is an organic process. Any big ideas you possess have grown over time from intellectual sprouts. Yet too often when we try to communicate our ideas, we disregard how they came about in the first place. In this way, giving a good presentation is like telling a good joke. You can't just open with the punchline without providing a setup. You don't want to divulge all information at once because your audience won't know what to do with it.

As Anderson explains, ideas are inherently complex and must be transferred step by step. A presentation must therefore take its audience on a journey of idea cultivation. Below are Anderson's three keys to building a strong presentation:

1. Begin the journey at your audience's level.

2. Give the audience a reason to want to go on your journey. Make them curious; make them care.

3. Take them step by step with each little contribution to the idea adding up a little bit so the audience doesn't get lost.

Keep these three items in mind and you'll be on your way to overcoming the curse of knowledge. This is the key to effective teaching, better communication, and the transfer of big ideas. If you want to cultivate knowledge in an audience, it's best to understand how these things grow.

Present Your Ideas: Overcome the "Curse of Knowledge" is available exclusively at Big Think Edge.

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