Breaking the Curse of Knowledge

I joked on Twitter today that I was going to save this graphic from a depressing Annenberg Center study for the next time I had to convince a policy wonk to tone down the complexity of their messaging for a general audience.

There is a serious point behind that joke: One of the most important roles a communicator plays in an organization is serving as the proxy for their audiences. Before you can communicate effectively with an audience, you have to be able to listen to them — and listen as them — as well.

This is especially critical for groups engaged in advocacy or education, such as think tanks. Communicators have to help subject matter experts distill their work into messaging that’s appropriate for each unique audience, while keeping it all consistent enough across those tiers of complexity. This avoids what I’ve called “messaging arbitrage,” where your inconsistencies in what you say to different audiences can be collected and used against you.

To accomplish this, the communicator needs to be able to put themselves in the audience’s mindset and understand what they value, what they know and what they understand. This lets them be an effective sounding board or even gatekeeper for their subject matter experts, who understandably struggle with the “Curse of Knowledge” in these situations and can value comprehensiveness of argument over comprehension.

For those of us who work in public policy, it can feel uncomfortably elitist and manipulative to “dumb down” complex public policies to the level where they are accessible by, say, someone who doesn’t understand basic governmental structure. And to be fair, if you’re not coming from a place of empathy and respect, you certainly can fall into that trap. (To see this on display, watch virtually any modern political advertisement.)

It’s also why it’s critical for communicators in these organizations to build personal relationships with their policy experts to grow trust and the room for candor during the messaging development process. This should include acknowledging the uncomfortable truth that the communicator often holds their colleague’s all-important professional reputation in their hands. That’s related to but separate from the organization’s reputation, and it’s a personal responsibility that can never be taken lightly by the communicator.

However, engaged policy experts who trust their communicators can quickly come to recognize that at the end of the day, the intent of this modeling and distillation into effective messaging is to accomplish the mission. If done effectively, it walks their audiences through the process of being aware of the issue, understanding the issue, agreeing with the preferred position on the issue and becoming involved with fixing the issue. Marketers and communicators look at that and think, “marketing funnel,” but it’s what successful advocacy looks like in the policy world and it’s why policy wonks get out of bed in the morning.

The end result is an audience member who is more informed and engaged than they were before you connected with them. That’s a good thing for our society, and it’s why it’s so important for policy communicators to have both the ability and the trust of their colleagues to serve as that proxy for their audiences.

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