When we moved out to our ranch, my wife had to impress on me that horses were not merely big dogs that we could ride. Wagging their tail does not indicate pleasure at seeing you. Rolling on the ground doesn’t always mean their back itches and yawning certainly doesn’t mean they had a late night. In other words, I had a lot to learn.
I don’t remember the incident, I only remember my frustration when I asked, “Why didn’t you tell me that earlier. Her answer, “That’s baby knowledge. Anybody that knows horses knows about that.” In my defense, I pointed out that I knew nothing about horses. In my opinion, my wife had neglected to give me the full story. Once my ego had time to recover. I could see what a profound concept the term baby knowledge is.
Let me give you my definition. Baby knowledge is the basic understanding of any subject that experts take for granted and forget the rest of us are clueless. Why is this important to you? Unless you and your audience share the same baby knowledge, it’s unlikely they will understand the message you’re trying to give.
Many years ago, when I found myself in front of a customer trying to explain how we had improved our reliability by a factor of ten, I was fully prepared. I explained that our vias were made using a new process (at the time) that was not fully defined by IPC and that our supplier had not been controlling the distance when he shaved the tops in preparation for the button cap. Our improvement had been to define the define how thick the tops needed to be after shaving.
I was completely in the zone. I was also totally unprepared for the first question, “What’s a via?” Unless you’re familiar with printed circuit board fabrication, my explanation was meaningless. That’s not an insult to your intelligence, you simply don’t have familiarity with the basic concepts, baby knowledge.
My next twenty minutes were spent explaining the basics of printed circuit board fabrication. I’m sure that everyone in the audience learned something about making printed circuit boards and that we had done something good by giving our vendor guidelines. Yeah, I assumed they had the same baby knowledge I had and completely overwhelmed them with details they had no hope of understanding.
In retrospect, I should have known no one in my audience understand the basics of PCB fabrication. All I really had to say was that our supplier was accidentally cutting the connection between the top layer and the internal layers too thin. These connections frequently failed under vibration. By forcing the supplier to leave a thicker and more consistent connection, the boards were no longer vulnerable to vibration. A graphic would definitely have helped.
If I had it to do over, I would spend my first five minutes introducing the basic concepts so my audience could understand how difficult it was to find the problem and the impact this would have on the industry by giving IPC guidelines for a reliable via. Instead I focused on our achievement, gained a reputation as an egghead and left my audience wondering what I was trying to say. Full disclosure, while I understood all the details, I was only the messenger, abet a very poor one. The credit goes to another engineer working for me.
Once you understand it, the concept of baby knowledge seems obvious. Your audience needs enough background information to understand what you’re saying. If they don’t have that information you need to provide those details or simplify your message. Simple.
I’m not going to pretend I’m being altruistic or helpful in writing this. As simple as this concept is, from daily meetings to instructional videos on YouTube, none of us can get through a day without encountering examples of people that don’t understand or disregard this principle. Okay, some of those people have no idea what they are trying to say. Their problem could stem from a lack of baby knowledge in their subject.
Fortunately for all of us with smartphones, Google is there to help. If you’ve just presented your big idea and see half your audience suddenly consult their cellphones, you forgot the principle of baby knowledge. Worse, cellphones being more interesting than you (don’t kid yourself), you probably won’t get back more than a quarter of your audience. It only takes a few such lookups and your entire audience is checking out the trending topics on Facebook.
The competition for your audience’s attention is higher than ever. Facebook, Google, LinkedIn and dozens more employ teams of social psychologists all working hard to ensure that once someone wanders onto their site looking for information, you will be forgotten. Don’t give these sites a chance. Remember, what’s baby knowledge to you, may be unknown to your audience. Don’t give your listeners an excuse to reach for their phone.
One more issue. Don’t underestimate your audience. This is not your opportunity to play teacher. If you’re telling your audience how to bake muffins, explaining what an oven is has an equally negative impact on your audience. Consider both your audience and your message. What do we know? What do we need to know? Unnecessary detail gives your audience a perfect excuse to see if anybody won last night’s lottery and then maybe a quick check on Nvidia’s latest announcement. You’ve been there yourself. Good luck on getting your audience back.Opinion by pen