“Poor communication is always the fault of the communicator.” So argues presentation trainer Ellen Finkelstein. Many would doubtless share her view. But is it really reasonable? Does the reader or listener have no responsibility for whether successful communication takes place?
I believe that not only is the reader equally responsible for successful communication, but that we as writers have to hold the reader to their responsibility. And the reason is simply this: if we treat the reader as having no role to play in successful communication, it makes our content worse, not better.
Communication cannot happen without the full and active participation of the reader. You can lead a horse to water, but the horse has to do the drinking for themselves. There is no Nurnberg Funnel. You can’t force information into the reader’s brain.
Steven Pinker, in his New Yorker essay, The Cause of Bad Writing, also lays the blame for poor communication at the writer’s feet, or, rather, at the feet of “the curse of knowledge”.
The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation of why good people write bad prose. It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that her readers don’t know what she knows—that they haven’t mastered the argot of her guild, can’t divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention, have no way to visualize a scene that to her is as clear as day. And so the writer doesn’t bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the necessary detail.
The curse of knowledge is, of course a real and serious matter. And a good writer is certainly one who is aware of, and able to compensate for, the curse of knowledge, at least to a degree. But the problem with blaming the failure of communication on the curse of knowledge alone is that it leads to the expectation—which Pinker explicitly states—that the cure is “to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the necessary detail.”
The Cure or the Curse
The cure, in other words, is more words.
Except that we know very well that more words is not the cure. Part of the curse of knowledge, perhaps, is not remembering that not understanding something is not simply about missing individual pieces of data, but about having a flawed picture of the world and how it works. Understanding something is about forming a correct mental model, which generally means demolishing the old mental model that is currently erected in that part of the brain. Merely providing the information, no matter how completely and in however much detail, does not accomplish either the demolition or the construction.
In fact, as John Carroll’s experiments showed, providing all that information gets in the way of the reader making sense of the object they are trying to understand. Carroll called it “the paradox of sense making”: the reader’s prior experience and the mental models they already have get in the way of understanding what they are reading. More words are just more to misunderstand. They only multiply confusion and frustration.
The paradox of sense making is the counterpoint to the curse of knowledge. Overcoming the curse of knowledge is important for the writer if they are to be as helpful to the reader as they can. But conquest of the curse of knowledge on the writer’s part does not constitute conquest of the paradox of sense making on the reader’s part.
The real curse of knowledge is not that we forget that the reader does not have the information we have, but that we forget that the information in itself is not always sufficient. When the moment of clarity arrives—when our worldview shifts so that the information becomes lucid—it is very easy to imagine that by simply repeating the information we can deliver the same moment of clarity instantly to every reader. We forget all the blindness and stumbling the preceeded the moment of light.
Or perhaps we assume that the blindness and stumbling was nothing more than finding the right sentence. But that is not what it was at all. It was the necessary preparation to being able to understand the sentence that was there all along. The sentence before us when the light finally goes on is not necessarily the best sentence. The real work of ignition may have been done by the many sentences—often other people’s sentences—which came before, which prepared the mind for the moment of realization.
Sources for Reader Sense-making
Rather than taking the entire burden of communication on our own shoulders, therefore, we must accept that the reader is fundamentally responsible for their own learning. The writer’s job is to provide useful resources that the reader can select and use as they struggle to overcome the paradox of sense making. That, certainly, is what minimalism is all about.
One of the most important things to remember when providing such resources is that the reader’s goal is not to understand what you have written. A meeting of the minds is not what the reader has in mind when they crack open a technical manual. Fully understanding the content’s of the writer’s mind is not what the reader is aiming for. Rather, their aim to to understand something useful about the real world.
The reader relies on the writer as a reporter who has been where they have not—it is the experience of some particular aspect of the real world that the reader seeks common ground on, not the content of the writer’s mind. They don’t read to understand the author. They don’t read to comprehend the text, and still less to remember it. They read to understand the world and their place in it.
Because the reader is interested in understanding the world, not the manual, they are often interested in collecting the reports of many different writers in order to build their own picture of the true nature of the world. Here is Miran Lipovača, author of the well respected, if eccentric book, Learn You a Haskell for Great Good on how he learned the programming language Haskell:
When I was starting out in Haskell, I didn’t learn from just one resource. The way I learned it was by reading several different tutorials and articles because each explained something in a different way than the other did. By going through several resources, I was able put together the pieces and it all just came falling into place. So this is an attempt at adding another useful resource for learning Haskell so you have a bigger chance of finding one you like.
Putting together a picture from multiple source is and always has been an important learning strategy. Combined with hands on experience, it is an important tactic for addressing the paradox of sense making. When a reader employs such a strategy, they are clearly taking responsibility for their own learning. They are not looking for a single book that will teach them the whole of a subject from soup to nuts without the need of any other source.
What is notable about Lipovača’s words (which are part of the introduction to his book) is that he fully recognizes that this is the strategy his reader will be employing, and he offers the book simply as one more resource to add the the collection they may consult.
This is not the sort of thing we hear from authors often. They are more likely to present their work as the only resource you will ever need, no matter whether you are a novice, journeyman, or expert, no matter what your background, and no matter what your goals. (They are abetted and encouraged in this by their publishers, of course, who reckon the reader may only buy one book on the subject and want to make sure it is one of theirs.)
But what if rather than claiming that we were delivering a one-pill cure for ignorance and inexperience, we instead took Lipovača’s approach and simply aimed at providing one more resource, or a set of resources that the reader can add to the resources that they use?
John Carroll’s work showed that systematic documentation actually made it more difficult for the reader to use the product. Minimalism urges a more restrained approach—one that allows and encourages more active participation by the reader in the learning process. In doing so, it encourages the writer not to try to take the whole burden of communication on their own shoulders, but to allow the reader to do the hard work of sensemaking that they alone can do.
One of the consequences of the writer trying to take the whole burden of communication on their own shoulders is that it can lead to infantilizing the reader—to imagine a reader so limited in knowledge, intelligence, or resourcefulness that they can only be spoon fed the most basic information. It sometimes results in documentation that tells you everything that you could work out for yourself and nothing you could not. It produces documentation that no one wants or needs to read, reinforcing the stereotype that no one reads the documentation.
On the other hand, if we treat the reader as a grownup, as someone who takes responsibility for their learning, we can produce content that are genuinely useful to a mature and responsible reader—content that might actually get read.