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The curse of knowledge

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The curse of knowledge

Is it possible to know too much?

It’s difficult to imagine not knowing something, once you know it.

For many of us, our morning routines will involve switching on our computers, logging into email, scrolling through social media and opening various documents (all the while glugging copious amounts of coffee). We’ve been using computers for decades now, so all of this is intuitive, we don’t even have to think about it.

Now imagine an office worker from the 1960s has time travelled to today and has never seen a computer, let alone used one. You need to help them get started. What information would they need? Surely, it’s a simple case of telling them to switch it on, enter the password and double click on what they want to open? But what if you don’t know where to switch it on? Or what a mouse is? Or where to find documents?

What’s obvious to you, might not be to others.

And this is true inside organisations. Sometimes internal communicators are involved in projects long before they’re communicated, especially when it comes to change. And when you’re living and breathing something, it can be easy to lose sight of what’s obvious and what isn’t. And that’s when communications don’t land as well as you’d hoped with employees.

So how can we ensure we don’t fall victim to the curse of knowledge?


Be aware of it

Recognise that we can all be guilty of not being able to see the wood for the trees from time to time. It’s only human.

Build it into your process that someone completely removed from the project needs to review your internal comms before they’re sent out to check that everything is clear and doesn’t require prior knowledge or more context.

For this to work, you need to leave your ego at the door and be OK with being challenged by colleagues to ensure you communicate important information in the right way.

Put yourself in the shoes of employees

Step into the shoes of your audience and really challenge yourself on what they will and won’t know. Have you articulated the ‘why’ clearly enough? How will this change affect them and what will they be most concerned about? The project team might be focusing on sharing the exciting details of the new office building whereas employees are more worried about how the move will disrupt their work, something the project team had ironed out months ago.

Remember your ethics

As internal communicators we need to uphold the ethics of our profession, which includes creating content that is clear, honest and accurate. Keep this in mind when communicating, and as with the point above, challenge yourself and hold yourself accountable.

Plan your content

While it’s not possible to plan every piece of content that’s shared within an organisation, it is important to do it with the ones that will have the most impact.

Setting out what you need to achieve and the key messages you want to convey can give you the space to think through your content and check you’re not succumbing to the curse of knowledge. It also means that once your content has been through an inevitable drawn out sign off process where it barely resembles what you created, you can check back against your plan to ensure the meaning and context hasn’t been lost.

Work with leaders

Leaders especially suffer from the curse of knowledge. They will often have been discussing a major programme of change and transformation for months and months before they even get to the point of communicating.

As internal communicators, it’s our job to understand as much as possible about a situation or project we’ll be communicating. We need to ask questions such as ‘why?’, ‘how did you come to that conclusion?’, ‘what was the driver behind this change?’ to uncover the detail we need.

That’s not always an easy conversation to have which is why it’s essential that you’re well connected in the organisation, are aware of what conversation is taking place, what people are concerned about to be able to convince leaders that employees are at least five steps behind where they are.


Listen to feedback

If you have communicated and it hasn’t quite landed, be open to listening to feedback about what was missing and address it as soon as possible. Depending on what’s been misunderstood will depend on how you do that. If it’s quick and simple answers you could do a FAQ, but if it’s something bigger, you might want to encourage your leadership to do a face-to-face Q&A.

 

Internal communicators are in the privileged position of being exposed to far more knowledge about an organisation than the average employee. So, we have a responsibility to not lose sight of what it’s like to be average employee and ensure we don’t succumb to the curse of knowledge.

 

By Helen Deverell for Alive with Ideas

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Jack Grasby — South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue

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Steph Tranter, Hybrid Exec Coach & Psychologist — StephTranter.com

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Sara Langston, Patient Engagement & Marketing Manager — italk

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