The Curse of Knowledge is a phenomenon that is part of human nature and the root cause of innumerable communication problems.

The basic idea is this: the more we know about a subject, the harder it becomes for us to imagine what it’s like not to know. Our knowledge curses us and interferes with our ability to make accurate assumptions about what others know.

If you’ve ever spoken with a car mechanic about their work and witnessed them switch into unfamiliar and complex-sounding language, you’ve seen the curse in action. And mechanics are not the only example, not by a longshot. Many technical and academic fields have their own tribal languages that highlight when the curse has taken over.

The biggest symptom is lack of awareness about the audience’s ability to follow what they’re saying. Not only do the communicators use complex language, but they assume the audience understands - and that’s why the Curse of Knowledge is such a problem.

A Study Illustrating the Curse of Knowledge

The video below is based on a study done by Elizabeth Newton at Stanford University, which I first read about in the book Made to Stick. It’s a great way to see how the curse impacts our perspective:

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Wistia video thumbnail - The Curse of Knowledge in Action

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How to Overcome the Curse of Knowledge

The key to overcoming the curse is awareness. Once you know the curse exists, you can consider how it impacts your own communication style and identify what ideas and subjects need a language tune-up.

For example, if you’re a software engineer and need to present to non-technical executives, there is a big risk that the Curse of Knowledge will interfere with your ability to be clear and understandable. To overcome the curse, you take these steps to evaluate your presentation with the curse in mind:

  1. Question your assumptions about the audience. What points or contexts are you assuming they’ll understand?
  2. Look closely at the language and examples you use. Will they work for the audience? Empathize and try to imagine how your words will sound to them.
  3. Build context. Start at a high level and build a world around your main points before diving into the details.
  4. Work with others. Ask people outside of your team to review your presentation and identify what may be confusing or unfamiliar.
  5. Build understanding into the presentation. Set expectations that the subject is complex and may need more explanation. Ask the audience if more clarity is needed. Be open to a change in direction.

In the end, awareness is the key. Once the curse becomes a part of your perspective, you’ll start to see opportunities to improve your communications and help others discover and embrace the idea that the curse exists and needs to attention.

To learn more about the Curse of Knowledge and how to improve your explanations skills, check out out Explanation Master Course.