What makes people give up?
It’s disheartening, because you want people to get it. You want to help.
So what goes wrong?
Well, this story might help. I used to teach literacy skills to young people who had missed years of schooling. For some, writing more than two sentences was an achievement.
One day, Jess (not her real name) proudly gave me ten lines of writing – with no punctuation. To encourage her progress, I suggested she make it even better with some full stops.
Well, the chair went back, the table went up and the pen went flying. She was furious, outraged, but most of all she was crushed. I had made her feel stupid.
Her response may seem extreme. But the root of her behaviour resonates with us all. Nobody likes feeling stupid.
The #1 reason learners give up?
There are lots of reasons people people give up. But, crushed confidence and feeling stupid is surely the most emotive. We give up because we feel sh*tty about ourselves.
And it doesn’t take much; mild bewilderment makes some learners jump ship.
Want to make your content clear?
There’s a surprisingly simple way to avoid confusion and keep people on board. It anticipates the frustration that makes learners give up. And gives you the confidence that people get it.
But, first we need to understand the problem. Why do experts unwittingly confuse people?
The more you know the harder it is to help others understand
Take a look at this cartoon.
What’s going on here?
The policeman knows the route. He wants to help. So why can’t he get his message across? Why is the tourist confused?
The cop knows every bend in the road and landmarks along the way. In his head it’s crystal clear.
But here’s the problem.
He unconsciously assumes everyone has the same mental images. So he leaves out details he takes for granted. And what the tourist hears is muddled and confusing.
Welcome to the Curse of Knowledge.
Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it’s like not to know it. Our knowledge has ‘cursed us’. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind.
So what can we learn from the policeman’s failed directions?
Experts are like the policeman who’s walked the same beat for years. Because experts have assimilated years of knowledge and experience, which they too take for granted.
And like the policeman, when experts talk to novices they omit details that seem blindingly obvious; they miss out steps that spell out the logic. Without realising, experts leave out the information learners need most.
Want to know why this happens?
Well, it’s just how our minds work.
The inability to set aside something we know but that someone else does not know is such a pervasive affliction of the human mind that psychologists keep discovering related versions of it and giving it new names.
Stephen Pinker, ‘The Sense of Style’. (Thanks also to Stephen for first using the cartoon to illustrate the Curse of Knowledge.)
You’re probably unaware of this problem. Because on a day-to-day basis you communicate with peers.
‘Nvo5dsd og22huos’ – Is this how you sound to novices?
Do you speak Expertese?
Here’s how the Heath brothers explain Expertese in ‘Made to Stick’. Skilled chess players talk about strategies together. They don’t talk about moving bishops diagonally; they take how each piece moves for granted. In other words, they dispense with the details; they don’t spell out the logic. But everyone knows what they mean.
Experts can communicate in this kind of shorthand because they share the same knowledge and experience.
When you open your mouth to communicate, without thinking about what’s coming out of your mouth you’re speaking your native language: Expertese.
In fact, speaking about your subject any other way can feel unnatural.
But, for a novice Expertese is confusing. It can make them feel stupid.
Novices need details. They need help connecting the dots. You can’t teach someone chess tactics before they know how the pieces move.
And this is where it goes wrong. Many experts talk to novices as if they were peers. So people feel out of their depth – drowning not swimming.
Stop learners jumping ship
What to help learners get it first time?
Use examples to show what you mean.
Examples are a simple, powerful way to help people understand.
Examples bridge the gulf between what you take for granted – and so don’t say – and what learners need to know. They connect the dots.
… an explanation without an example is little better than no explanation at all.
Here’s how it works.
Life belt example #1
In this example – see what I did there – a Project Manager (PM) is teaching novices to use spreadsheets. But she talks in shorthand – the language of Expertese.
‘Not updating spreadsheets can lead to disastrous results.’
Project Managers know what she means by ‘disastrous results’; they’ve experienced the fall out of flaky spreadsheets.
But for the novice, this shorthand is meaningless. High level generalisations raise more questions than answers.
What the Project Manager (PM) says:
‘Not updating spreadsheets can lead to disastrous results’.
What novices might think:
‘Really? What happens?’
‘What can be so bad?’
‘What disastrous results?’
Disastrous results the PM has experienced that seem too obvious to mention:
- Running out of resources
- Going over budget
- Missed deadlines
- Stakeholder complaints
- Losing clients
Beware the forehead-slappingly obvious (to you). Say what actually happens. Share your experience.
Life belt example #2
Here she explains that removing adverbs helps you use more accurate, vivid alternatives.
She anticipates people thinking, ‘How does that work’? ‘What does she mean by vivid and accurate alternatives? What do they look like?’ with these examples:
|With adverb||Without adverb|
|She spoke softly||She whispered; she mumbled|
|She said loudly||She barked; she yelled; she screamed; she shrieked.|
Life belt example #3
An example doesn’t have to be written. On the Using Social Media for Business course we said you can use Instagram as a ‘window into your business’ to build trust.
We anticipated questions like ‘What? How can photos build trust’? ‘Really? What sort of photos?’ with an example from our Beerbods case study and a one-line explanation.
To avoid speaking in shorthand, assume people have questions. Then anticipate and resolve them with real world examples. Before frustration builds.
- Check for high level statements e.g.
‘Not updating spreadsheets can lead to disastrous results’
‘Instagram can build trust in your business’
‘Removing adverbs creates better copy‘
- Consider what questions they raise. What might people ask if you were face to face?
- Then resolve the questions with a short example
Banish bewildered, befuddled and baffled learners
Does all this talk of examples make you nervous?
Perhaps you dismiss this as dumbing down. Or maybe you fear boring, or worse still, patronising people.
Of course, not everybody needs every example. But remember, you want learners to feel smart and capable – the opposite of feeling stupid.
People who don’t need the example can congratulate themselves.
‘Yay, I knew that’.
And if the example dispels doubt, it’s a confidence boost.
‘Yep, I did know that’.
And for everybody else, examples stop them feeling shame about what they do and don’t know.
Here’s the good news. Your experience is unique, so your examples are too. People will choose you for your examples. Because they want your take on things.
Start small. Look back at some content. How many examples did you include? Some? None? Give it to a friend to read/watch. Ask what questions they have. Choose an example and see if it resolves it.
It takes time to think of helpful examples. But, it’s time well spent. Because examples unlock the door to understanding.
In this post I used these examples:
- Jess writing without punctuation to show the link between feeling stupid and giving up
- The policeman giving directions to explain the Curse of Knowledge
- Chess experts talking about strategy to demonstrate the language of Expertese
- The Project Manager talking short hand, Henneke’s sentences with and without adverbs and Beerbods’ Instagram photo all show how to anticipate and answer learner questions using an example.
Without these I doubt you’d be reading this sentence.
Because examples can make the difference between a learner who gets it and one who gives up.