(Editor’s Note: New contributor Patricia McMillan has provided a couple of recent posts from her LinkedIn blog. These give practical advice on why you shouldn’t ask an expert and on how to engage an audience.)

Has someone ever spoken to you, rabbiting on confidently as if what they are saying is as clear as the morning sky, while you are struggling to make any kind of sense out of what they are saying?

It’s kind of surreal, as if they forgot what country they were in and hadn’t twigged that the audience speaks a different language. They’re speaking away happily in French to a Japanese crowd who are too polite to point out the problem.

George Bernard Shaw said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

I’m willing to bet you’ve been on both the giving and receiving end of this kind of miscommunication not just occasionally but countless times. I know I have. Sales presentations, roadshows, conferences, and meetings I’ve attended where I’m left wondering what context I’ve missed. Websites and mission statements that tell me nothing about what a company actually does. My own presentations where I can see I’m not getting my message across.

Taking the trouble to remove jargon and acronyms certainly helps, but there is a more insidious problem that prevents us from making sense to other people.
It’s a cognitive bias that everyone in the world suffers from, and it’s known as the curse of knowledge.

Once you know a thing, you can’t un-know it, and this prevents you from viewing information from the perspective of someone who doesn’t have the same knowledge. You’re cursed with it, unable to make sense to the less informed.

This is why a newbie or outsider can often give a better explanation of a topic than an expert. They can still remember what people don’t know.

So is there hope for the expert? How do you break the curse of knowledge so that people understand what the farthingham you’re talking about?

Yes, there is hope. (Cue inspirational music.)

People understand stories. A story describes an experience a person has had, and the listener experiences the same thing for themselves as they hear the story.

For example, you might tell the story of one of your customers who was facing a challenge that you were able to help them with. Instead of telling people about your products and services, you allow them to experience what it’s like to work with you, through the eyes of someone else who has. And then they’ll understand what you’re about, especially If they can identify with the other customer and the problem they faced.

What stories can you uncover that will help you to make more sense?


Audience not engaged? Give yourself a dose of empathy.

Date: Mar 25, 2015

Establishing empathy for the other person’s perspective is one of the most important, and most difficult, things to do when you are preparing for a presentation or a meeting.

It’s so much easier to focus on the information you’re conveying than on what your audience might think or feel about it.

However, if you fail to frame your presentation from their point of view, they are unlikely to be moved by it. It’s like holding up a painting you expect your audience to admire, but holding it so it faces you, not them. You’re the only one who will appreciate it.

It’s arrogant, or at least inconsiderate, and they’ll know you haven’t made the effort to understand them. They’ll decide that checking their email is a lot more interesting and rewarding than listening to you rabbit on.

So how do you make sure you understand your audience’s perspective?

Spending time immersed in their world, facing the challenges they face, is of course the best way. Many actors and writers do this to establish empathy with their characters.

However, there are also some role-playing exercises that can help. Jim Signorelli introduces one of these in his wonderful book, StoryBranding. He calls the technique an I AM statement.

Signorelli uses I AM statements as part of a process for creating a strong product brand, but I have found them to be extremely helpful in preparing presentations that resonate.

Essentially, you are role playing on paper, writing about yourself as if you were a particular member of your audience. Spend ten minutes pretending you are that person and write about who you are, what your life is like, what you care about, what you worry about, what pressures you face, what frustrates you, what magic solution you wish you had to solve your problem, what you find satisfying or rewarding, how you like to think of yourself.

Start with “I am…” and just let it rip. Try one for yourself (as yourself) first to get some practice. Then role play as a member of your audience.

You might be surprised at the insights you gain from doing this. It should help you turn that painting around so your audience can see it too.

I’d love to know how you go.



Patricia McMillan is a trainer, speaker, facilitator, and coach, specialising in storytelling and innovation. She has a background in mathematics and information technology and worked as a programmer, business analyst, project manager, and director of strategic initiatives before starting her own company. Since 2006 she has participated in projects related to Australia’s National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS). You can contact her at www.patriciamcmillan.com