The Curse of Knowledge

Being smart can be a handicap when communicating with others.

“When we are given knowledge, it is impossible to imagine what it’s like to LACK that knowledge.” — Chip Heath

You aren’t communicating effectively...

Because you assume too much. When explaining or teaching a concept, you leave out important context. You are prone to using acronyms, technical jargon and professional speak without even realizing it.

You forget what it was like before you learned.

The curse of knowledge is a common cognitive bias. It manifests itself as you mistakenly assuming the person you are communicating with has the background to understand. Being completely unaware of the disconnect, you may even get frustrated with their inability or refusal to understand.

Some all-too-common examples:

  • An ineffective professor who forgets what it is like to be a student

  • A developer who uses technical terms with a non-technical person

  • A doctor who uses medical jargon to discuss blood test results

Marketing-speak is fertile ground for bewildering, layman-unfriendly language:

  • Proactively integrate top-line expertise.

  • Harness change to create 360° value.

  • Optimize next-generation e-services.

This kind of language has a number of humorous online generators. Dilbert has soundly ridiculed it. Don’t fall victim and become a walking parody of yourself.

How do you blunt the curse of knowledge?

Awareness of where your expertise lies is a great start. Follow with these techniques:

  • Use the Feynman Technique to explain a concept in terms a sixth grader can understand.

  • Understand your audience and tailor the message accordingly.

  • Create a diagram, graph or other visual. A simple picture can be far more effective than words.

  • Tell an entertaining story to illustrate the concept in the imagination of others.

The act of tailoring your message for the right audience will improve your own understanding of the concept. Teaching and learning go hand in hand.


🤔 Food for Thought:

Can you identify areas where you are prone to the curse of knowledge?

Do you have any memories of falling victim to it, as either the source or target?

Have you ever tried learning by reducing your explanation of a concept to terms a child could understand?


⚙️ One Small Step:

The next time you are tasked with presenting information to an individual or a group not as knowledgeable as you, use one of the techniques described in this essay. How did it go? What did you learn in the process?