This article first appeared as a guest blog on the pages of Comms Leaders, here.
Many thanks for the platform, Vicki and team.
Here’s a paradox of communications. Otherwise eloquent folks often adopt the most curious dialect when they’re thrust into the spotlight and asked to explain why they do what they do. The invitation to tell your story ought to usher in a moment of clarity and elegant simplicity. And yet all too frequently we fluff our lines and plump up the pomposity, belching forth ugly lumps of language that are neither coherent nor informative. Most importantly, we don’t even talk Human. Yet oddly enough, humans respond well to that all-too-rare dialect of Human.
Nerves and a lack of deliberative rehearsal can take some of the blame. And even though we may spend a lot of time thinking about our purpose and our role – in our team, our company, our society – we don’t often say and live it out loud. Completing a tender for procurement might require the production of a narrative of sorts, but that’s not the stuff of storytelling. Myths and legends that move us to action aren’t best constructed from cells on an Excel spreadsheet.
The Curse of Knowledge
A further barrier to snappy storytelling is the Curse of Knowledge. Wikipedia defines the Curse of Knowledge as “… a cognitive bias that occurs when an individual, communicating with other individuals, unknowingly assumes that the others have the background to understand”. Unknowingly, yes. And wrongly, too.
Academics are particularly guilty of the Curse of Knowledge, finding it difficult to bring themselves down to the level of their students – even their graduate students. Some argue that the legal and financial services professions’ very existence is predicated on the Curse or Knowledge. How often do we hear solicitors and accountants filling their prose with jargon, specialist knowledge, and abstract nouns that confuse the audience by putting up a smokescreen?
The whole purpose of communication is to transfer ideas between us – H2H, or human to human as TED Talker Bryan Kramer puts it. We are all, as author Dan Pink says in To Sell Is Human, in “the moving business”. Comms with impact persuades others are to take action. That might not necessarily mean getting them to agree with us; to buy our product or vote for us. In fact, it might be the opposite – but negative action, avoidance behaviour, is still motivated action.
Empathy, empathy, we all need empathy
The Curse of Knowledge doesn’t just stop communication working because it doesn’t sound human; it’s also the very opposite of humanity, Kryptonite to human expression and storytelling. And the reason for this is that the Curse of Knowledge reveals a fundamental lack of empathy on the part of the speaker.
That defining human characteristic of being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
To be able to imagine what it must be like to be them.
And so, what it must be like to receive the message that you’re giving. The story that you’re telling. The dialect that you’re using. To talk Human, you need to tell stories of emotion. Stories that trigger the brain’s emotional barometer and generate an emotional response.
It is now generally agreed that we make decisions based on emotions, using our evolutionarily-ancient, reptilian brain. And then – smart cookies as we are – we use our rational, data-driven grey and white matter to justify our decision making. But mark the order in which this happens: we make our decisions emotionally, and rationalize, erm, rationally.
Just as the psychologist Daniel Kahneman has mapped out in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. Quick, emotional, System 1; slow, deliberative, rational System 2.
Start with “Why?”
So, when it comes to talking and telling your story – sharing your “Why?” – bear this in mind. Whether you’re leading a team or a company, a pitch or a sales presentation.
Share real, emotional stories that are backed up – but not dominated – by facts and data.
Be empathetic enough to avoid the Curse of Knowledge.
Realise what it’s like to be in your audience. You can do this best by saying out loud what you’re going to say to someone else before you say it on the stage where others will judge you.
Do all these things, and you’ll most definitely be talking Human.
Sam Knowles is a master data storyteller and the Founder & MD of the consultancy Insight Agents. His purpose is to help organisations make smarter use of data, talk Human, and sound like people. An established and sought-after trainer, keynote speaker, and podcaster, he is the founder and host of Data Malarkey podcast and chair of I-COM’s Data Storytelling Council. He’s a Fellow of the Market Reserach Society, the RSA, and the Professional Speaking Association.
Sam is the author of the ‘Using Data Better’ trilogy of books, all published by Routledge. These include the 2018 best-seller Narrative by Numbers, 2020’s critically-acclaimed sequel, How To Be Insightful , and 2022’s eagerly-anticipated Asking Smarter Questions. In 2023, Insight Agents launched Using Data Smarter, a comprehensive, online training course based on all three books.
Find out more about Sam’s approach to data storytelling in this 15-minute video.