Friday, April 23, 2010

How I Know What They Know and Don't Know

On the value of a Liberal Arts Education in Business

A recent NY Times article describes what might be the "Next Big Thing" in literary studies. Basically, it is the intersection of literature and cognitive science: how our brains work when reading complex texts and what we gain from the process.

To illustrate this approach, one professor quotes a story line from an episode of the TV comedy Friends.

Phoebe and Rachel plot to play a joke on Monica and Chandler after they learn the two are secretly dating. The couple discover the prank and try to turn the tables, but Phoebe realizes this turnabout and once again tries to outwit them. As Phoebe tells Rachel, “They don’t know that we know they know we know.”

The article goes on to describe this "layered process of figuring out what someone else is thinking" as one topic of study in this new conjunction between brain science and the Humanities.

All of this reminded me of something I've often thought about my own academic background (a BA in Humanities and a Masters in English/Creative Writing). While it might not seem obvious, I've come to believe these studies prepared me brilliantly for a career in business.

Whether I am writing user instructions, designing a web site, or creating an e-learning course, I constantly need to be aware of my audience's level of knowledge and point of view:
  • How much does a reader know before they start reading?

  • What do they understand at any given point in a process?

  • What percent of the audience already knows some piece of information and what percent needs to be told?

If you are a marketer, a technical writer, an information architect, or a learning designer, understanding your audience is critical. This critical understanding is gained through various techniques: background reading, interviews, focus groups, observations in the workplace, group discussion of observed data. At a university, students are drilled in these techniques in Humanities and Social Science classes. In other words, in Liberal Arts studies.

In my case, I have no doubt that all the hours I spent in seminars discussing 20th Century novels gave me rigorous training in adopting, understanding and appreciating multiple points of view.

In business, whether you are a marketer, an analyst, a writer, or designer, you serve as a communicator between one set of minds and another. To be effective, you have to grasp what those multiple minds understand, think, and believe.

In other words, you have to know what others know and don't know.