Is the curse of knowledge killing your communication?

Emily Rodgers

The other day, I gave grammar training to an external content team. At one point, after explaining the difference between ‘that and which’ for five or so minutes, I looked up to see perplexed faces staring back at me.

I work with grammar every day; it’s my job, which is why it was so alien to me that a group of people couldn’t grasp what I was trying to say as quickly as I would have expected. So much so that it stifled my ability to make the information easily digestible.

It was official: I had the curse of knowledge.

In the first of this three-part series on this topic, I will give an overview of what the curse of knowledge is, how it can affect you and your business, how and where it appears as well as tips to overcome it. The second part will delve deeper into the implications that the curse of knowledge can have on your output, including examples and the third part will look at ways to use the curse to create new content.

What is the curse of knowledge?

The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias in which a person struggles to explain a concept to someone with less familiarity of it. The more you know, the harder it can be to put yourself in their shoes, simplify the information and transfer that knowledge to the person.

This results in three things: miscommunication, frustration and delays.

In their book, Made to Stick, the Heath Brothers explain:

Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has “cursed” us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind.

The problem is, in order to brief, train, pitch, explain or instruct, you need to communicate your idea, concept, thought process or knowledge effectively to a person or room full of people who may have no idea what you’re talking about.

How does the curse of knowledge affect you?

Marketers and agency workers are particularly affected by the curse of knowledge for two reasons. Not only is it our job to understand a product or service inside and out to sell it successfully, but we’re also often in the business of selling to people who may know little about the product or service at hand.

If we put this into perspective and apply the curse of knowledge in our content marketing, there’s a chance that a person reading your copy may simply turn to a source that explains the concept in more straightforward terms and thus a lead is lost.

If you don’t consider the curse of knowledge across every type of communication, you can automatically appear unapproachable and inaccessible.

How and where the curse appears

Let’s run through the ways the curse could affect different parts of your business.

And here are some ways in which the curse can occur:

Spotting the curse

Luckily, there are a few tell-tale signs of the curse of knowledge. To place these potential roadblocks in communication, you need first to recognise that it’s happening and then actively stop yourself. To identify the curse, look out for these things:

Tips to overcome the curse of knowledge

To succeed in an industry, knowledge is inevitable ergo the curse is unavoidable. The best way to tackle it is to take some precautionary steps and approach sharing your knowledge in a different, more effective way.

Before you start

Ask yourself: what understanding does your audience already have?

If someone already has a basic understanding of a brief or project, explaining it to them again is redundant. On the flipside, not checking what the audience already know can make assumptions kick in and the conversation starts on a confusing note.

Gauge an understanding of what communication you need to unload so that everything is relevant. This can be done by a quick email before the meeting or even a survey if the group is large.

Once you know this information, it might be handy to bullet point the journey up until this point and delete anything irrelevant.

Speak face-to-face

You can’t see the pained expression of someone trying to grasp what you’re talking about from behind a screen.

If you feel like you don’t have time for a meeting, try to make time. Five minutes now could save hours, if not days, further down the line lost in miscommunication.

Answer why

The best thing you can answer for the listener is ‘why?’.

Answering the why provides basic context.

Once you’ve established the ‘why?’, you can then determine what doing this task will result in. This will help the listener understand what the end goal is and therefore what they need to achieve to get there.

Simplify

Speak as though you’re talking to a five-year-old. This doesn’t mean dumbing down your content. Simply speak at a slow pace, in easy-to-understand language and asking as well as encouraging questions throughout.

Are there any abbreviations, jargon or lingo that the audience might not understand? Be mindful of this as you’re writing or talking and take a moment to explain or link to somewhere with a detailed definition.

Empathise

The biggest downfall of the curse is lack of empathy.

Your inability to get into that person’s shoes makes them feel isolated in their understanding. The best thing you can do is to reassure the recipient that you were once where they are and promise them that you’ll help them to understand what you need them to.

Tell a story

When you’re explaining your concept, make sure to have a beginning, middle and end:

Starting small and structuring your knowledge should help both you to put the content into bitesize pieces and them to understand it.

Create a comparison

Many people learn by association. Referencing something that they already understand, or something cultural that they can make a comparison to will help the person digest the information easier.

Is there a TV show or tool that you could reference? Could you use a case study, previous content on the topic or testimonials? Are there any videos or visual aids that show what you’re trying to explain?

Be aware

While you’re talking, be vigilant and read the room. Is the audience asking questions?

What questions are they asking? What expressions are you receiving? What comments are you getting?

All of these signals will help you tailor your communication.

Ask them to relay their interpretation

Once you’ve finished, ask the person to repeat it back to you or give their version of what you’ve just explained in their own words.

This will help them reiterate and remember all the crucial information you need them to, and you can also see if they’ve taken what you’ve said on board in the correct way.

Follow up

If you’ve spoken to a big group, let the audience know that they can grab you at any point for further explanations or questions.

If you’ve had a one-to-one conversation about a project or campaign, schedule in a regroup in the middle of the timeline to check on the process. This is especially important if you’ve briefed someone in. Checking work at incremental stages will confirm whether or not they’re on the right track before things go too far.

Face the curse for effective communication

Unless you address it, your communication will continue to suffer at the hands of the curse.

Done right, getting past the curse can add a host of benefits to your business. It can streamline the briefing process, get work done quicker and more effectively, get clients on board with ideas, allow readers to absorb complex information and allow students to become masters.

Watch out for the second and third parts of the series coming very soon!

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