Expert Opinion: Working With Executives Who Know Too Much

June 27, 2018

[ikon images]
[ikon images]

When I was a communications director on Capitol Hill from early-2014 to mid-2017, one of the best aspects of my job involved all the truly intelligent, bordering on brilliant, people with whom I had the opportunity to work.

The federal government attracts people from around the world with Ph.D. and J.D. degrees. The legislative staffers, policy advisers, economists and members of Congress who I collaborated with were dedicated, firm in their beliefs and thoroughly versed in their areas of expertise. And sometimes, those same qualities made it hard to work with them.

Of course, this problem is not limited to government. Many of my corporate clients have also “known too much,” especially those in technology and medicine.

Don’t get me wrong — I would much rather write for someone who knows his or her subject than one who doesn’t. I once wrote a speech for a person who wanted to discuss the “five biggest marketing trends” for the upcoming year. I said, “Great, what are they?” She replied, “I don’t know. Come up with something.” I did, but I would rather have written about her ideas.

So, how do you successfully work with someone who knows so much more about his or her subject than the audience for whom you will be writing?

Set communications goals.

When working with “The Man/Woman Who Knew Too Much,” the first challenge is to overcome your own insecurities. You don’t know as much about the topic as the person you’re working with; you are not an expert in their field.

However, you must remember that this genius who you are collaborating with is not an expert in your field, either. We are not communications specialists just because we know “how to write a sentence” or “where the comma is supposed to go.”

We are communications experts because we understand audiences of all types and the messages that will resonate with them. We translate complicated ideas into language that people will understand. And we foresee communications pitfalls before they occur.

In too many jobs, I was brought in to “fix” an expert’s speech or op-ed after she or he had already written several drafts. I recommend that in all cases — especially those in which you’re dealing with someone with “too much” expertise — you collaborate before anyone’s fingers hit the keyboard. Work with the expert to determine what she or he wants to achieve with the piece of writing — key audiences they want to reach, and what they want that audience to do, say or feel after hearing the speech or reading the writing. This upfront teamwork will help you frame the text from the beginning, and direct its tone and structure.

In many instances, experts get caught up explaining how a drug, app, piece of legislation or scientific process works, and ignore what that work is intended to accomplish. It’s important to remind your expert that everyone, no matter how well they know the topic, will want to know what the “bottom line” is.

Keep it simple, not stupid.

It’s also important to understand, and communicate to your collaborating partner, the difference between simplifying a message and dumbing it down. My favorite teacher in high school taught us about the ladder between the abstract and the concrete. He said that good writing uses all rungs of that ladder — from the most abstract concept to the most concrete example.

I see a similarity in making complicated material accessible to a varied audience. Work with your expert to create a lead sentence that summarizes the topic in a way the average reader or listener will understand. Then, explain the subject in depth for those with more knowledge of it. For example, a pharmaceutical piece could lead with: “This new drug lowers your risk of heart attack by 35 percent,” and then describe the specific chemical interactions that lower the risk.

Dealing with highly intelligent collaborators brings unique challenges. I’m referring to Mensa-level, comic book villain, “how-does-anyone-know-that-much-about-anything-that-important” degrees of intelligence. In my experience, such people have a difficult time understanding that not everyone is as smart as they are, and that it’s not just a matter of others needing to try harder to comprehend a complex concept.

In these situations, my greatest successes have come from explaining to the expert that “Not everyone will get that,” while demonstrating that I did. (Unless I didn’t, in which case I’d ask, “How else can we say this?”)

Offering substitute language that might be a bit more elevated than you would otherwise use can suit both of your needs.

Use similes.

I’ve also had success creating similes with experts — images that don’t oversimplify the topic but can be easily grasped. A possible simile for the heart medication might be: “This drug works like a brush to clear plaque out of your arteries, allowing blood to flow more freely.” (As you can tell, I am not a doctor.)

An audience can picture it, and a doctor doesn’t feel he’s reading something beneath him. You might even provide language that doctors can use with their patients.

Keep your chin up.

When managing an ultra-expert, try to have a thick skin. Such people are sometimes insulting or condescending without meaning to be. (Other times, they do it on purpose.)

Just remember that you are in your job for a reason. You know what you are doing. Stand your ground, but don’t be obstinate. As I said in a previous column, “Don’t lose your job over a comma.”

A communications professional who can work with experts in other fields has a huge competitive advantage. If you are known for taking the most complicated ideas, getting them across to a lay audience and not infuriating those you work with, then you might be viewed as a “person who knows too much” in our field too.

Ken Scudder

Ken Scudder has provided media training, presentation training, crisis communications training and consulting, as well as writing and editing, to business leaders, celebrities and politicians for more than 20 years. Contact him at,, or follow @kenscudder on Twitter.


Leslie E. Gottlieb says:

Ken this is really informative and targeted. I learned a few things myself! Great article??

July 2, 2018

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