What Is The Curse of Expertise And How To Escape It?

Preparation is key. No matter what kind of presenter you are, no matter how much experienced you are, no matter how much you master your topic, the more you prepare, the better your speech or presentation will be.

And yet, sometimes, you spent a lot of time preparing, you worked a lot on your content, about something you have a lot of expertise in, and when you present… It flops. And you can’t understand why. People just seem to be bored, even though you’re very excited about your topic.

Your audience doesn’t seem to share your excitement. How come?

This is a bit counter-intuitive, but sometimes the problem is you know your subject too well. You’re too much of an expert. Yep, there is such a thing. And introverts can easily be guilty of this. We like to master a topic really deeply before we talk. That’s a good thing per se, but you must be careful nonetheless, or it can backfire.

You don’t believe me? Then let me tell you a story.

The Speaker That Knew Her Topic So Well She Was Boring As Hell

It was a rather big crowd. Maybe 200 people. We were all waiting for her speech. It promised to be interesting. I knew her. She was a great researcher, had an important position in a very famous institute, and she was about to talk about Artificial Intelligence.

All kinds of people were there: IT people, but also cooks, hairdressers, business guys in suits. Teenagers, too. After all, the whole event was for them. It was during an exhibition for high school students. We were there to help them find their future job.

Oh sure, some people were there only for the cocktail. Free champagne and petits fours, that would be served just after the speech.

And then she began talking.

Oh, my…

Her speech was terrible. She was just reading her paper. She kept her eyes on it all the time. Reading it aloud with a monotone voice, word after word, sentence after sentence. Not making eye contact with the audience, ever. It’s like she was reading it for herself only. Like she didn’t even notice we were there, in front of her.

People in the audience were getting uncomfortable. Some of them started to speak with each other, because they were getting bored. But she had a microphone, so we could still hear her. Then she stopped talking. We all thought she was done. Some were getting ready to politely applause. But we were wrong. She just turned a page, and got lost in her transcript. After a few seconds, she got back on track and kept talking, again and again, with the same deadly tone of voice.

Close to me, there were two cute hairdressers. I thought I might talk to them after the speech, you know, chatting with them while sipping a glass of champagne. That would be cool. But the first one said to her friend: “Okay, I don’t understand anything anyway, why don’t we leave?”

And they left.

Actually, a lot of people were leaving. Her speech was so boring they preferred to give up on the cocktail and free food rather than keep listening to her. When she finally stopped talking, the room was half empty.

I stayed. Not because I was thrilled by her speech, but because I knew that meant more champagne and petits fours for me. But I was somehow disappointed, too. Artificial Intelligence is one of my passions, I’ve been working in that field for almost 20 years, and it’s a domain that remains mysterious for a lot of people.

Artificial Intelligence is the future. Some people find it exciting, others are scared because Terminator and his pals might take over the world. It needs to be demystified. But the speaker failed at it.

And then I wondered:

Why do so many people have such a hard time at engaging their audience when speaking in public, despite their expertise? How many great ideas, how many important messages, have been lost because of the poor public speaking abilities of their defenders?

It’s not especially about introversion here, although it certainly doesn’t help.

Is it about lack of technique? Somehow. She would have performed better with the correct posture, body language, tone of voice, and all that non-verbal stuff. But there’s more.

Usually, when you have to suffer a bad presentation, that’s because the speaker didn’t prepare enough. Preparation is key, I’ll keep repeating it. You need to master your topic, obviously. But in that case, the problem is not about a lack of expertise on the domain. Quite the opposite, actually.

That speaker was such and expert in the field that she couldn’t see nobody outside of her domain of expertise could understand her.

She was suffering the curse of expertise.

When You Are So Clever You Can’t Explain Why

The curse of expertise happens when somebody, a speaker or a teacher generally, doesn’t understand he knows things his audience doesn’t know. You see, it takes time to master a skill or understand a complex field of knowledge. But, once you become an expert, everything seems easy and obvious. Whatever semmed impossible months or years ago is now fully integrated by your body and your mind, to the point you don’t even think about it. It becomes automatic.

If you can drive, for instance, you know what I mean. I bet your first lesson was pretty chaotic; all these commands to use at the same time, the pedals, the steering wheels, the flashing lights, and all had to be synchronized. Yeah, remember, it was such a mess!

Nowadays, I’m sure you don’t even think about it, to the point you sometimes feel like you’re on autopilot mode. You’re lost in your thoughts, thinking about your day or what you will do this evening, when all of a sudden you remember you are driving.

And it’s the same with the skills you acquired when you were a young child: walking, talking, reading… You don’t even think about them anymore, and yet it took months if not years to learn all that stuff.

Now think about that: imagine you just met someone who, for some reason, couldn’t learn how to talk (let’s pretend for a second he was adopted by wolves far away from civilization or something dumb like that). How would you teach him that? How would you explain him the steps required to walk decently on your posterior members? Or how to articulate sounds that actually mean something? And yet these are tasks you probably fully master, to the point you’re not self conscious at all hen you perform them.

On the other hand, imagine a skill, or a field of expertise, you had a hard time understanding, and only recently acquired. It could be a complex math theorem, or a complicated movement in your favorite sport, or some technique you just learned how to master on your musical instrument of choice. Could you teach that to one of your peers? It probably would be way easier than teaching how to walk to Mr. Raised-by-wolves.

And sometimes, a speaker or teacher forgets he is an expert in his domain and people in his audience are not. Well, actually, he does not really forget, but what he talks about is so easy, so obvious to him, that he thinks he made an effort, by making it easier to digest. He’s pretty sure he dumbed things down, to the point even a three-year old would understand. And yet, people in the audience cant’t figure it out, get discouraged, and stop listening to him.

That is the curse of expertise in a nutshell.

Why Is It So Frustrating?

This phenomenon is very frustrating because, the more you know about something, the more passionate you are, the more skilfull you get, the harder it becomes to transmit it. This counts double for introverts who like to think a lot and process information before they feel confident with any piec of knowledge. And obviously this is even worse with very high end experts, like the scientist I talked about at the beginning of the article.

Is All Hope Lost Then?

You bet it’s not. Do you remember the rhetorical triangle I mentioned in my previous article about why introverts can actually be better at public speaking than extroverts?

In a few words, there are 3 aspects to any public speech, 3 components:

  • the speaker,

  • the message,

  • the audience.

All three are equally iportant. As the speaker, you must adapt to your audience. You’re not just talking about a topic, you’re delivering a message to an audience. Maybe there’s a little research to be done there. Knowing about your audience is as important as knowing about your topic.

You always have to ask yourself:

  1. “Who will be the typical spectator this time?”

  2. “How much or how little does he know about the topic?” You must really dig a little, there. You must try to get in his or her shoes, as much as possible.

  3. “How should I deliver my message to that typical audience member, knwoing what I know about him or her?”

The good news is, as an introvert, you probably already care about your audience, and can feel how they react at the same time as you speak. You are probably not self-absorbed as some extraverts tend to be, so this should be easier to you.

The bad news is that, yes, you probably won’t be able to reuse your powerpoint from last time, even if you already talked about the very same topic last month ago and it went perfectly. Because…

Your audience changed, and it’s your job to adapt to her, not her job to adapt to you.

Just imagine: if you spoke about, say, artificial intelligence last week, and you have to talk to the same people, but about web development this time. Can you reuse the slides you made your presentation about AI. No, of course not. That would be silly, right?

Well, why would you use the same slides for a very different audience, then?

Now, you don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water. You don’t necessarily have to start from scratch everytime, far from it. Of course you can reuse some of your material everytime. But never forget who you’re talking to.

That’s the only way you can go from top-level expert to top-level public speaker.