Sometimes It Pays To Be Ignorant.

I’m often asked to write about subjects I know very little about. But with my experience, this ignorance can be a blessing in disguise. Why would ignorance be a blessing? Because I have to ask very basic questions, and that can often uncover compelling new insights or an interesting way to position the “story” for maximum impact. As a professional corporate writer – a keyboard for hire – I get smart quickly by asking good questions.

People in general, and experts in particular, tend to have firm views on various subjects – including a limited set of words to discuss them – and sometimes these views haven’t been questioned in years. With a little honest prying, you might strike gold.

Metaphors like “striking gold” lead me to another reason why ignorance can be a blessing. If good writing is supposed to shed light on a subject, and if the writer is not “an expert,” he or she can help let in the sunlight – and a fresh breeze – by creating interesting and memorable associations. Metaphors. People listen and understand more when metaphors are used. And, by the way, understanding metaphors is one of the characteristics that make us human.

To support this point, subjects in one recent neurological study read metaphors involving texture – which stimulate the sensory cortex, the part of the brain responsible for perceiving texture through touch. Phrases like “The singer had a velvet voice” and “He has leathery hands” roused the sensory cortex, while phrases like “The singer had a pleasing voice” and “He had strong hands” did not.

But check out this other study. It turns out that the brain does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life!

When study participants read sentences like “John grasped the object” and “Pablo kicked the ball,” their MRI scans revealed activity in the brain’s motor cortex, which coordinates the body’s movements. This means that words describing motion stimulate regions of the brain that are distinct from language-processing areas.

Even more amazing: sentences that described arm movement activated the arm-related part of the motor cortex, and sentences describing leg movement activated the leg-related part of the motor cortex.

Wow. Science is now substantiating the remarkable power of words. And that means a good writer can help you (and your expertise) enlighten and move people – from the inside out.

For me, the point is clear. You don’t have to be an expert to write effectively about a subject. You just have to know the right questions to ask – and maybe have the touch of a poet.

9 comments on “Sometimes It Pays To Be Ignorant.

  1. Don:
    This is a fantastic article! I teach my students at NYU the power of using stories, analogies and metaphors and this research helps confirm the power.

    I use the term invite a “smart dummy” to your meetings, to ask the simple questions when you are a subject matter expert preparing a presentation and you may be too close to the topic.
    Best,
    ~ronni

  2. Marie Orsini Rosen on

    Don, your blogging always makes me do two things — think and thank you. Marie

  3. Excellent article Don. Asking, probing and listening are forgotten or neglected skills that are valuable in many areas…in writing as you covered so well in this blog, in sales and in marketing too…even in parenting. Your points are helpful in so many ways. We could all benefit from asking, probing and listening more. When did you come to realize the importance of asking/probing? Was it part of your innate personality…your DNA…your position in your family? Did you learn it in school? Were you influenced by a mentor? Just asking.

  4. Startling that reading about an experience and encountering it are read (!) the same by the brain.

  5. I agree. I think naivete about a subject can be an advantage. You are innocent of expertise and thus of bias. You bring a perspective that lends itself to objectivity.

  6. Peter E. Heymann on

    Ignorance can be bliss as the cliche says.
    Don, your insights are very helpful. Questioning and probing from a place of not knowing can definitely reveal more than assuming knowledge. Thanks.

  7. I have also found that by knowing very little about a topic and educating myself, I can then go on to simply explain the subject to other non-experts. Great article, Don.

  8. You are a master explainer!
    This post might have helped me a few weeks ago when I was trying to assure a potential client that I would do a good job even though I haven’t worked with someone in her industry in years.

  9. Michael Moorin on

    Nicely done.

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