On Typhoon Yolanda and The Curse of Knowledge: A Communication Exercise


A news article at Rappler recently caught our attention. The headline, Storm surge’ not explained enough – PAGASA official, states that there was a shortcoming in making the public fully understand the gravity of Typhoon Haiyan / Yolanda.

Below is an excerpt of President Noynoy Aquino’s statement given on November 7, a day before the typhoon hit the country. Originally delivered in Filipino, this is the English translation from Sunstar:

Storm signal number 4 has been—and will be—raised over some areas because of this typhoon.

Current data indicates that Yolanda will be stronger than Pablo; we pray that because of its speed, it will not linger over any of our provinces and intensify the damage. The typhoon has a 600-kilometer diameter. We expect it to make landfall on Samar and Leyte by midnight; it will traverse the provinces of Masbate, Cebu, Panay, Romblon, Mindoro, and Palawan, before it completely leaves the Philippine Area of Responsibility on Saturday night.

Aside from strong winds, rain, the overflowing of our rivers, and the possibility of lahar in areas near the Mayon and Bulusan volcanoes, we are likewise monitoring the threat of storm surges in more than a hundred areas: Storm surges are expected in Ormoc, Ginayangan Ragay Gulf in Albay, and Lamon Bay in Atimonan. Waves in these areas may reach five to six meters.

If you can rewrite this excerpt, how would you improve it?

Take a few minutes to rewrite the same information, but using words that can be understood better and can help make the general public realize just how dangerous this typhoon will be.

Go ahead, we’ll wait for you here.


The Curse of Knowledge

Economist and psychologist, Robin Miles Hogarth first coined the phrase – “The curse of knowledge” – which refers to the problem that occurs when someone better-informed fails to communicate his message, because he used words that the lesser-informed audience cannot understand.

The “curse of knowledge” is originally found in a paper by one of his PhD students, Colin Camerer of Caltech and co-authored with George Loewenstein at Carnegie Mellon University and Martin Weber. (Thanks to reader, Miguel García for this information).

Anyway, we believe that the excerpt above can easily be understood by many (or is it?), but we believe its goal is not to simply inform, but to also warn the public of the coming danger – to make them realize that there is an absolute need to prepare for the typhoon.

Here’s our rewritten version:

Storm signal number 4 is now raised in some provinces.

Yolanda will be stronger than Pablo. It is expected to enter Samar and Leyte by midnight and move across Masbate, Cebu, Panay, Romblon, Mindoro, and Palawan. It will leave the Philippines by Saturday night. Because of its size, the whole country will be affected, especially Central Visayas.

Expect strong winds, rain and overflowing of our rivers. Lahar is possible in areas near the Mayon and Bulusan volcanoes. There is a danger of water from the sea coming to land in big waves, like a tsunami. This is called a storm surge. All coastal areas are at risk, especially in Ormoc, Ginayangan Ragay Gulf in Albay, and Lamon Bay in Atimonan. The waves can reach the height of a two-floor building.

How similar is your excerpt from ours? We hope it’s very close.


How To Avoid The Curse of Knowledge

Be straightforward with your core message.
We asked ourselves, “What’s the core message of the first sentence?” The answer is to tell everyone that some provinces are already under storm signal number 4 – and that’s what we just did.

Use simple words and common language.
In the second paragraph, “landfall”, “traverse” and “Philippine Area of Responsibility” can be understood by college-level individuals. But using “enter”, “move across” and “Philippines” instead will help elementary-level people also understand the message.

Avoid hard-to-imagine numbers.
Typhoon Haiyan / Yolanda has a diameter of 600-kilometers. Can you imagine how big that is? We cannot. So instead, we removed the number and simply said its size will affect the whole country, with special mention to Central Visayas.

On a side note… when you hear that a typhoon is coming, what’s your first concern? Is it the size? We don’t think so. We bet your first question is, “Where is it and what provinces will be affected?” This is the core message that we emphasized in the second paragraph.

Explain concepts using simple analogies
The eruption of Mount Pinatubo introduced “lahar” to the Filipino consciousness. That’s why there’s no need to explain that in the third paragraph. But “storm surge” is a new concept that many heard for the first time.

That’s why we felt the need to explain it in simple terms – “water from the sea coming to land in big waves”. And then we compared it to a tsunami, which many Filipinos know as very destructive.

Lastly, we again removed the “five to six meters” number, and replaced it with an analogy that everyone can imagine – that the waves will be as high as a two-floor building.

Beyond The Storm

We hope that this discussion on “The Curse of Knowledge” has helped you become a better writer, speaker and teacher.

The concept has a lot of uses, not just in giving information and teaching concepts, but also in writing proposals, pitching ideas, winning arguments, and many others.

Remember it always.

Photo credits: Mans Unides