The curse of knowledge is a state of mind where better-informed people find it difficult to think about problems from the perspective of lesser-informed people. The Book, “Made to Stick – Why Some Ideas Stick and Others Die” by Chip and Dan Heath, emphases this phenomenon, more elaborately:
Excerpt from the book:
“And that brings us to the villain of our book: The Curse of Knowledge. Lots of research in economics and psychology shows that when we know something, it becomes hard for us to imagine not knowing it. As a result, we become lousy communicators. 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.
Here’s the great cruelty of the Curse of Knowledge: The better we get at generating great ideas—new insights and novel solutions—in our field of expertise, the more unnatural it becomes for us to communicate those ideas clearly. That’s why knowledge is a curse. But notice we said “unnatural,” not “impossible.” Experts just need to devote a little time to applying the basic principles of stickiness. JFK dodged the Curse [with “put a man on the moon in a decade”]. If he’d been a modern-day politician or CEO, he’d probably have said, “Our mission is to become the international leader in the space industry, using our capacity for technological innovation to build a bridge towards humanity’s future.” That might have set a moon walk back fifteen years.”
An experiment explains this further
Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine not knowing it.
In one experiment, one group of subjects were asked to “tap” a well-known song on a table while another group listened and tried to identify the song. Some “tappers” described a rich sensory experience in their minds as they tapped out the melody. Tappers on the average estimated that 50% of listeners would identify the specific tune; in reality only 2.5% of listeners could identify the song.
This is a fantastic demonstration of the Curse of Knowledge. The tappers knew the song when they were tapping (so they were like experts), while the listeners knew nothing prior to hearing the tapping (so they were like laymen). The tappers had failed to deliver what they believed to be easy to the listeners. It was the Curse of Knowledge that produced the significant gap between 50% and 2.5%. Most times, when we think that we have succeeded in explaining our knowledge, we in fact did not.
Why is this? In the example above, because when a tapper taps, it is impossible to not hear the rhythm playing in his head. However, what the listener hears is noisy tap on the table. Yet the tappers where surprised by how hard it was for the listener to guess the tune right.
Is your Online Business Free from the Curse of Knowledge?
The best teachers are not the ones who know the subject best, they are those who know how to take what they know and give it to others.
If you find it difficult to teach or convey a message that seems clear in your mind to someone else who is less informed, you are dealing with the curse of knowledge. This is especially true on the internet. Most content marketers, bloggers and businesses are yet to get the basic principle of written communication.
Here is part of a typical business website’s service page:
Our system is designed to configure, operate, and troubleshoot medium to large-size routed and switched networks, including implementation and verification of connections to remote sites. We deliver comprehensive Front End Engineering & Design solutions with integrated cutting-edge technology
This may make sense to you reading this but for the most prospects, it has failed to communicate how this business can really help. When you are speaking with colleagues at your office or fellow professionals in your field, you can use all the jargons you want. You business website, is not built for professionals like you, but for the laymen whom your product or service are for. It’s your duty to communicate with them in clear and plain language they’ll understand.
What you should start doing now?
Can you remember what it was like to not know what you now know? It may seem difficult but you can and have to get yourself in the position of your audience or customers, if you really want to engage with them. To understand how to better engage with readers, you need to put your readers first, with the goal to help them see reality, through a more concrete and conversational style.
Use what they are familiar with to explain the abstract. Save us the headache and do you business some good.
Have you been bored listening or reading from an ‘expert’ or a business website loudly expressing the curse of knowledge? Have you found it difficult to teach what you know even when it seems very clear to you? Let’s hear your contribution.