Why people don`t understand your speech even when you feel you are clear

When it comes to humming, stories and even presentations we are often cursed. Cursed with what is called the (cue ominous organ music) “Curse of Knowledge” (cue flash of lightning for no apparent reason). This is the reason why very intelligent people explaining or delivering stories to an intelligent audience end up sounding like they come from Mars.

She Doesn’t Know What I am Humming

Let`s start with humming. Humming is pretty simple. Anyone can do it. I pick one of my favorite J-Pop songs. I hum it and about less than 50% of the time my wife gets it right. I am so sure I am doing it right, I have even recorded myself. But the fact of the matter is that my wife doesn`t have the orchestra that plays in my head that also accompanies my humming.  What seems so obvious to me, is in fact a sometimes a mystery to my wife. Add to the fact that a lot Pop songs could be played with just four cords and you have a recipe for confusion. It is amazing we communicate as well as we do.

What does this have to do with presentations? When you explain or tell your story, sometimes you assume the audience knows things that they may not know. Like in humming, you assume that they hear the “orchestra” when they do not. What makes this “a curse” is most presenters are not even aware that they are making these assumptions. So, we get blindsided by the fact that they do not get it. It seems to “simple” or “natural” to us. Let`s face it, their reality is not ours.

The Two Faces of the “Curse of Knowledge”

The “Curse of Knowledge” can be broken down into two broad categories. The first one is where the speaker`s “common sense” or “common knowledge” is different from the audience.  The speaker may be aware of these things, but thinks that “Everybody knows X.”

Unfortunately, that doesn`t turn out to be the case.  A second category is not so much about “common sense” but that the person has become so skilled or knowledgeable in a field with respect to the audience that he or she forgot what they don`t know. Different audiences will have knowledge different gaps. These two things may seem similar at first but let`s look two examples

Your Common Sense is Their Uncommon Sense

First example: You want to talk about the importance of leaving things in the same place all the time so you will not forget. You causally tell a story about forgetting your bank book and how you had to waste time to go back and get it. If this was an American audience, you would have a problem. Bank books do not exist in America. They have no idea what they look like, what they are used for or why you would even bother to go back to get one. What seems as common as air to a Japanese person can be in fact as a rare as a squirrel in Japan or a starry night in Tokyo.

A Genius or a Hack?

Second Example: Suppose you had a choice of being taught piano by a genius like Mozart or a hack like Salieri. Who would you choose? Most of would say they would like to be taught by Mozart. But most likely Mozart would not even know how he plays the piano so well, let alone be able to teach someone how to play. Whereas Salieri may not be the most talented pianist in all of Vienna, but he is much closer to his students than Mozart. Not only is he aware how he plays, but he can empathize with his students. He was in their place not too long ago.

Competence Ladder

This is illustrated in what can be called the Competence Ladder, which is as follows:

A.    Unconscious Competence
B.    Conscious Competence
C.    Conscious Incompetence
D.    Unconscious Incompetence

Mozart is at A. Salieri is at B. And most students are at C. This is not an all or nothing event. Parts of a skill may even across different categories. Do you think about every hand movement, every decision when you drive a car? No. You just do it. Could you start racing at Fuji Speedway? Maybe. It would take a lot more concentration than a normal race driver. The difference between them and you is not only a difference in skill but also a difference in its automation.

Which may be just the reason that Japan artesian do not do much teaching. They have put so many things on automatic pilot that they have no idea how teach what they do. The apprentice can only learn by looking, analyzing, and trying.  

You may think that you are no master or genius compared to others in your field, but when it comes to your life, no one in the audience is as much of an expert as you are. They have not been to the places you have. They have not had the jobs you had. Or had the experiences you had. You have to give them a break.

Still, when you do become aware of the problem you have to also be careful not to overcompensate. If you go to the “This a pen” level you will come across condescending. The audience will feel like you are treating them like third graders and stop listening to you. You want to meet the audience at where they are at, not too far below or too far above.

Find a Representative

So, what can you do? For the purpose of space, I will stick to one simple suggestion right now.
First and possibly the simplest is find someone who would represent your audience. Get that person to listen to you. And get feedback from them.  At this point you need feedback on the nuances of the voice, gestures or pauses. You just want to know what was clear and what was unclear.

Questions you could ask are:

  • What words that you did not recognize?
  • What parts were hard to imagine?
  • What parts where you felt you need more info? What did want to know?
  • What questions were running through your head?
  • What parts felt very different from your own personal experience?


Also, if you are going to conduct this kind of interview, it is best to tell or give the person the questions in advance. They may forget the details after your presentation is done. Also, remember that you are not trying to keep adding stuff to increase comprehension.  Increase length can increase complexity and make the presentation too long and confusing. You want to know the least amount of information needed to get the most out of your message.  You may want to try this a couple of times on the same person until you find the right balance.


Whether it be in speeches or in humming we are all faced with the “Curse of Knowledge” (re-cue lightning and ominous music). But it doesn’t have to be a curse. In fact, by struggling with this problem you will become more empathetic and more understanding of others.  It will also help you become even clearer and more easily understood. And who knows? Maybe you if you really work hard at it you could be as good as Akira Ikegami.

If you have any questions  or comments, please let me know. I would love to hear from you.  If you want to get more articles like this in your mailbox please subscribe!