Isn’t it interesting how life itself offers it’s own presentation tips. Perhaps it’s just me but since I reached my prime of ‘middle age’ its seems that rarely a week goes by that I don’t have a conversation with someone who clearly knows exactly what they are talking about and assume that I do too.

It’s nothing to do with age, intellect or indeed anything to do with me of course. It’s what I now understand with the benefit of maturity to be a universal communication challenge.

As a presentation skills trainer and coach it has taken me a while to realise that it’s a phenomenon I experience every week, not just in my personal life but in business too.

I believe there is even a psycholinguistic term for it; it’s called ‘The curse of knowledge’. In layman’s terms it simply means that you assume that other people know the things that you do, which is a curse because it causes you to believe that people understand you a lot better than they really do.

As a presenter that’s something you may wish to ponder on for a moment.

It’s something I’ve been on the receiving end of no less than 3 times in the last 24 hours alone.

Incident 1

I called my cable T.V Company to find out exactly what package I was on and how much money I could save by simply removing the sports channel. Greeted by the most charming customer service operator she spent 20 minutes telling me about all of the ‘incredible’ offers, deals and discounts that were available at the moment.

She shared so much information so fast that I completely lost the thread of what she was talking about and almost forgot why I called in the first place. She clearly knew her business inside out but her offers had nothing to do with the reason for my call.

I regretted making the call and didn’t get what I wanted even after a 20 minute conversation.

Incident 2

Having recently changed web platforms I have been really excited to work with a new innovative business that seems to offer me so much more value.

As great as they are and as much as I love them, they still take money from me to implement changes and assume that I know as much as they do about the functionality of those changes.

I don’t of course and that is really frustrating.

I tell them what I want and they implement the change beautifully, but because they know how it works they assume that I do to.

Being on the receiving end of assumptions can be very time consuming and distressing.

Incident 3

Yesterday I had the pleasure of helping my son with his university dissertation. In terms of intellect and academic prowess he is in a league that I couldn’t even aspire to be in yet I’m hopeful that I was able to help his thought process in some small way.

My counsel to my son was that he should consider the objective of his dissertation in terms of the impact he wanted it to make on the examiner with the same level of clarity that he would want to share with a 10 year old.

That doesn’t mean that he writes his dissertation for a 10 year old. It simply means that having studied his specific subject so intensely for so long he would always know more than his readers. My advice was to not assume for a moment that his readers knew as much as he did and to take them on a journey of understanding.

It’s a huge challenge for all of us regardless of age or experience.

When it comes to presenting ‘the curse of knowledge’ is a very destructive force.

The solution

Having the courage and level of awareness to recognise and accept the reality that when it comes to presenting our audience just aren’t privy to our thoughts is a good starting point. Once you take the important step of fully acknowledging that the curse exists for all of us, here is what you can do to overcome it:

1. Use examples

The curse of knowledge can completely sabotage any intention you may have of connecting with your audience to influence action or change.

Think about specific, relevant and compelling examples you can give to illustrate what you mean. That may be a personal experience, a story or simply a clear analogy.

Whatever you do, don’t assume that just because you understand what you know that they will too.

Examples are the route to helping your audience ‘get it’.

2. Ask them how much they know

The affliction is of course greatly exacerbated by not making the effort to find out as much as you can about how much your audience already knows.

That knowledge is unlikely to be gained by spending hours on Google or even studying the company website or annual report. The best way I know to achieve the level of understanding you need to cure the curse is to ask your audience.

Most presenters have neither the courage nor time to ask their audience 3 extremely powerful questions. If they did we would have broken the curse decades ago. Have the mindfulness to ask them:

How much do you know already? What do you need to know? What do you want to know?

3. Talk to the family

Whether it’s your spouse, sister, sibling or 10 year old child it’s likely that they don’t really understand exactly what it is you do.

Take the time to explain what you have to say in terms that they will be able to understand and that clarity will help you to avoid inflicting pain on your real audience.

4. Slow down

Have you noticed that a close conspirator of the curse is speed? We know so much and have so much to share in such little time that we unconsciously cram it all in without taking a breath.

That’s where we really lose our audience.

If you are troubled by the curse, try pacing your presentation out. My job as a presentation coach requires me to travel extensively both in the UK and internationally. When I first started years ago I found myself driving everywhere if I was working in the UK.

Today I tend to take the train.

For me driving up and down todays hectic motorways is really stressful. The train allows me to enjoy the journey as part of the whole experience rather than focusing exclusively on getting to my destination oblivious to the hundreds of miles I may have travelled.

Every now and then the train stops for a few moments to pick up other passengers and I get to pause, perhaps look out the window and gather my thoughts.

Make your presentation an enjoyable journey where you build in pauses to allow your audience to catch up.

Take a moment to breath after each sentence too and feel the difference it makes for you and your audience.

5. Craft a conversation

Most of us dread sitting through presentations largely because unlike the presenter we are aware of the curse of knowledge and have attended far too many ‘information dumps’.

Another potent way of breaking the curse is by crafting a conversation rather than a one way presentation.

The way to create a conversation is to mindfully build in opportunities for the audience to share their insights and participate in the content. That can be achieved through having a discussion, inviting questions, using props or simply getting them actively involved in some way.

Not putting yourself in your audience’s shoes is a painful hurdle to effective communication. Failing to do so inevitably leads to frustration, misunderstanding and disregard from audiences.

It’s so clear to you so why don’t they just ‘get it’?

Image: Courtesy of