“The Curse of Knowledge”
Ever have an “expert” try to explain something to you, only to be left more confused than when you started?
They’d forgotten how to be a beginner… and lost most of the ability to teach along the way… here’s how to not make the same mistake yourself.
What is “The Curse of Knowledge?”
If you’re “Cursed,” then you are unable to imagine what it’s like not to know or understand something — a topic, discipline, craft, what have you — which, in turn, makes it hard to communicate that knowledge to less-informed people.
In their book, Made to Stick, the Heath Brothers provide a typical example:
Think of a lawyer who can’t give you a straight, comprehensible answer to a legal question. His vast knowledge and experience renders him unable to fathom how little you know. So when he talks to you, he talks in abstractions that you can’t follow. And we’re all like the lawyer in our own domain of expertise.”
That said, let’s set the anecdotal evidence aside and focus on the science:7 Ways to Lift the Curse of Knowledge
1) Know your audience’s base subject knowledge.
How well your audience understands your subject should shape the way you approach it.
So, do your research. If their base subject knowledge is high, feel free to skip the fundamentals. If their base knowledge is low, or nonexistent, start from the beginning — start at thirty thousand feet and parachute down, slowly, gradually.
To figure out your audience’s base knowledge, try creating a detailed target persona. It’s not that hard and it’ll give you the background you need to write in a way people understand and appreciate.
2) Tone down your vocabulary.
Peppering your writing with idioms, jargon, and big, fancy words is like saying: If you don’t understand this, maybe you shouldn’t be reading it. Stop while you’re ahead. Thanks for playing.
That’s a nasty vibe, if you ask me. Plus, if people can’t understand you, they’ll inevitably tune out and turn off. And then what will you do? For example, this is:
- Bad: “Let’s open the Kimono, take a peek at the email CTR, and break down scalable successes.”
- Better: “Let’s look at the data, evaluate the email clickthrough rate, and capitalize on what’s working.”
- Best: “Let’s see how many people opened our emails and do more of what works.”
3) Tell a story.
Before writing existed, people used stories to keep history. For thousands of years, stories helped us spread information. Today, stories remain just as psychologically impactful as they did back then. As Jonathan Gottschall explains in his book, The Storytelling Animal, human beings are natural storytellers. Stories are a fundamental piece of our genome.
We love stories because they help us see the world through different lenses. We love stories so much, in fact, that we naturally inject ourselves into their narratives, hijacking characters’ circumstances, emotions, and learnings.
Of course, stories also maintain an order. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end, which makes it hard for the Curse to sneak its way in, leaving people out of context and confused.
4) Ditch the abstractions.
Leaders often speak in abstractions because their experience helps them visualize broad concepts. For example, we can all imagine a Chief Customer Officer saying something like:
Our mission is to provide callers with the best customer service they’ve ever experienced.”
That’s great and all, but what does it mean? And how does a statement like that differentiate you from the competition? It doesn’t. These days, differentiating yourself in a crowded space means getting specific, like this:
Our mission is to answer every phone call to the customer service department within three rings and to resolve non-emergency calls within 6 minutes.”
Be concrete. It’s comforting to people.
5) Provide examples.
Unlike abstractions, examples put concepts into perspective.
An example could take the form of a metaphor or a simile. As long as it paints a picture, it’s doing its job. In any case, examples make sense of things, using information we already understand to forge connections.
For instance, when my grandma Sofia didn’t understand what a blog was, I explained it to her in terms I knew she’d be familiar with: “It’s like a journal or a magazine,” I said, “but you can only read the articles on the internet.”
6) Use visuals.
About 65% of people are visual learners, meaning they absorb information better and faster when images are used to explain it.
Hence: PowerPoint presentations, infographics, and those quirky, mesmerizing whiteboard videos you’ve seen. These are all examples of compelling visual content being used to engage and educate people from the boardroom to the web page. Incorporating these and other visual components into your messaging is a potent way to appeal to nearly a third of your audience.
7) Get an outside point-of-view.
You write. You edit. You reread, rearrange, reformat. You repeat.
That’s writing — and it can be an intense process, which, sometimes, leaves your message over-processed. In other words, it’s possible to overthink something, twisting it up until you’re the only person who gets it.
A good editor will alert you to this issue. Don’t know any editors? That’s okay. Ask a friend to give your writing a once over. They may not be your target audience but they can still serve as a barometer for comprehension.