Monday 14 March 2016

Documenting knowledge for others

If we document knowledge for others to use and learn from effectively, we need strategies to overcome the "curse of knowledge"

This blog post from the excellent Farnham Street blog features a book by Stephen Pinker, the cognitive scientist and Harvard professor of psychology, called "The Sense of Style, The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century". In this book, Pinker looks at communication through writing, and examines the psychological barriers to writing well.

One of the primary barriers is "the curse of knowledge" - something I cover in this blog post, and which Pinker describes as follows:

"The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose. It simply doesn't occur to the writer that her readers don’t know what she knows — that they haven’t mastered the patois of her guild, can’t divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention, have no way to visualize a scene that to her is as clear as day. And so she doesn't bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the necessary detail".
We see this effect working in Knowledge Management all the time, when experts attempt to communicate detailed knowledge through the written word. People write what they think is useful knowledge, but often it is useful only to them and not to the reader. They skip bits, they infuriate with jargon, and they assume that things are obvious to the reader when they actually aren't. This is a particular bugbear of lesson learned systems, where lessons are often too impenetrable or too full of assumed knowledge to be effective (here are some good and bad examples).

How do we overcome the curse of knowledge in our writing?

Pinker suggests the use of examples (we may also use stories and case histories) to partly overcome the curse of knowledge, and gives us the following four tips for making our writing a better communication medium.

  1. Get rid of abstractions and use concrete nouns and refer to concrete things. Who did what to whom? Read over your sentences and look for nouns that refer to meta-abstractions and ask yourself whether there’s a way to put a tangible, everyday object or concept in its place. “The phrase ‘on the aspirational level’ adds nothing to ‘aspire,’ nor is a ‘prejudice reduction model’ any more sophisticated than ‘reducing prejudice.'” (I cover some of this in my blog post about avoiding passive verbs, particularly when documenting lessons). 

  2. When in doubt, assume the reader knows a fair bit less than you about your topic. Clarity is not condescension. You don’t need to prove how smart you are — the reader won’t be impressed. “The key is to assume that your readers are as intelligent and sophisticated as you are, but that they happen not to know something you know.” (What we call "writing for the unknown user").

  3.  Get someone intelligent and part of your intended audience to read over your work and see if they understand it. You shouldn't take every last suggestion, but do take seriously when they tell you certain sections are muddy or confusing. “The form in which thoughts occur to a writer is rarely the same as the form in which they can be absorbed by the reader.” 

  4. Put your first draft down for enough time that, when you come back to it, you no longer feel deep familiarity with it. In this way, you become your intended audience. Your own fresh eyes will see the text in a new way. Don’t forget to read aloud, even if just under your breath.

1 comment:

David said...

Hi Nick!
Good hints for a common challenge.
I would like to add the tip to take the expert as input but the writing should be done by the addressees of the knowledge (one or several). We made good experience with this to avoid the "curse". The addressees have at the same time an additional learning effect by transforming Knowledge into own words. The expert can afterwards review the content. And he is less packed with annoying authoring.

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