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Why It’s So Hard to Stop Writing or Talking Like a….

Posted on by Cynthia Baur

In The Sense of Style, his most recent book on language and writing, psychologist Steven Pinker argues that all people, and especially highly educated professionals, suffer from “the curse of knowledge.” He defines the curse as “a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.” Pinker states that the curse “is the single best explanation…of why good people write bad prose” filled with jargon and incomplete or confusing information.

How might the curse help us understand the persistence of health literacy problems even in organizations doing their best? Is the curse perpetuating health literacy problems and could lifting the curse be a major part of the solution? Pinker acknowledges that most people struggle to shake off the curse. He offers four pieces of advice. One, remember there is an audience who doesn’t know as much as you do. Two, recognize the assumptions you make about what your readers or listeners know. Jargon, for example, reflects an assumption that other people know the words you do and share the meaning for those words. Three, ask the people you’re trying to communicate with for feedback. Four, be willing to revise based on feedback.

Pinker’s suggestions should sound familiar to us. The health literacy field has many tools, such as the CDC Clear Communication Index and the Health Literacy Universal Precautions Toolkit, that show health professionals how to write and speak more plainly. A social marketing approach would tell us we need to make sure these tools meet health professionals’ needs if we want much adoption. The adoption challenge is, how easy and fun is it to look deeply at your own assumptions and adjust something like communication style that you may be comfortable with?

The curse of knowledge reminds us that we’re asking our colleagues to grapple with and change deeply ingrained habits that require more than superficial attention. If we aspire to creating organizations that address health literacy as a routine matter, we may need to dig deeper to uncover and correct harmful assumptions.

Are we doing everything necessary to help our colleagues under stand their “audience” and recognize assumptions about communication? Do we need to do even more to help our colleagues practice and refine their ability to adjust their communication techniques? How else can we help a clinician or scientist understand that communication is an iterative process that may involve multiple rounds of checking for understanding?

Please post your comments about how the “curse of knowledge” works in your organization and ways we can help our colleagues “dig deeper” and recognize their assumptions about communication.

Posted on by Cynthia Baur

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