Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker: The No. 1 communication mistake that even smart people make

Author and psychologist Steven Pinker
David Levenson | Getty Imates
Author and psychologist Steven Pinker

"There are many battles of history that were lost because of botched communication," says Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard University.

In today's workplace where email and Slack conversations are as common as in-person meetings, the perils of miscommunication are ever-present. And no one is immune.

Pinker, author of writing manual "The Sense of Style," says the chief impediment to clear communication is a phenomenon called the "curse of knowledge."

This cognitive bias basically means that "when you know something, it's extraordinarily difficult to know what it's like not to know it," Pinker tells CNBC Make It. "Your own knowledge seems so obvious that you're apt to think that everyone else knows it, too."

The problem with that, he says, is that you're more likely to use jargon that most people don't understand, to skip steps and explanations, and to rely on abstractions instead of describing things in concrete terms.

So what can you do to overcome the curse of knowledge in your own writing and speaking? Pinker recommends the following four strategies.

Test out your message

Whether you're giving a speech or writing a memo, the most important thing you can do is show your message to others and have them honestly say how clear it is to them.

"You'll often be shocked to find that what's obvious to you is not obvious to anyone else," says Pinker. "It doesn't even have to be someone in a radically different field."

Choose your words carefully

"The other thing to remember," says Pinker, "is that words themselves are not the ultimate point of communication. Words are a window into a world."

You use words to sketch mental pictures, convey ideas and tell stories. That's why it's important to choose words that will help people understand what you're trying to say rather than words that are confusing or distracting. To get your point across, consider replacing jargon, idioms and obscure metaphors with short, commonly used words and direct explanations.

"Unless the words can help the listener or the reader paint a mental picture, they won't be effective as a means of communication," he says.

Take a break

Another simple way to clarify your writing is to put it aside, and then come back to it after awhile to read it again. Whether you give it a few hours or a few days, returning with fresh eyes can make a big difference.

"One is often surprised at how puzzling one's own prose is to oneself after some time passes," Pinker muses.

Edit savagely

Oftentimes, the most important part of writing is rewriting, and Pinker recommends meticulous editing.

"Take several passes of polishing and rewriting with the sole goal of making the prose clearer," he says. "For every sentence, ask: 'Is that actually conveying to someone other than me or my best friend what I mean for it to convey? Can I state it more succinctly, more vividly, more concretely?'"

Ultimately, clarifying your message to others can help you be happier and more successful in life and at work, especially when you consider the alternative: miscommunication.

"If there was more attention paid to clear writing and communication," says Pinker, "we could improve the efficiency of business, education, government — and the frustrations of everyday life."

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