The Curse of Knowledge

The “Curse of Knowledge” is the inability to clearly explain something to another person, because you know the subject so well.

Not a clear explanation as defined by you. A clear explanation as defined by the other person.

Why is it so hard to clearly explain something you know so well? Because it’s easy to forget what it was like to not have that knowledge.

For example, we regularly work with bankers whose field is so specialized that in a city of 15 million people, they can hold industry-wide networking meetings in someone’s living room.

When they tell each other what they do (“I do X”), they understand each other immediately. But when they try to explain what they do to others, no one can understand. One of them even told us once, “I’ve been married to my wife for 10 years, and even she doesn’t understand what I do.”

That’s the Curse of Knowledge. No matter how many times you try to explain yourself, no matter how well you know the other person, you… just… can’t… get… your… point… across.

But don’t worry, there are 6 very specific things you can do to overcome the Curse of Knowledge.

By the way, the benefit of overcoming the Curse of Knowledge can be huge. It becomes so much easier to explain your ideas clearly. It becomes so much easier to get the support you need. When you overcome the Curse of Knowledge, you can see the lights go on in your audience’s heads — “Oh, THAT’S what she’s talking about!”

What are those six things? They are:

  1. Make your message simple. Strip it to its core. A tip: use things people already know about. For example, if your audience knows the movie Die Hard, you could describe the movie Speed as “Die Hard on a bus.”
  2. Say it in an unexpected way. Humans like to think in patterns. Break those patterns, and your audience will pay attention while you put the pieces back together. An example: flight attendants at Southwest are famous for doing something different with the mandatory safety announcement.
  3. Make your message concrete. Use simple, sensual, tangible words. Use words and phrases like “bicycle,” “cherry,” and “rotten smell of garbage,” instead of abstract words like “justice” and “liberty.”
  4. Click here for an example of “make it concrete”…

  5. Make your message credible. Ideally, of course, you could say things like, “I understand rocket propulsion, because I am a Harvard-educated rocket scientist,” or “I understand this law, because I am an attorney.” But what do you do when you can’t say that? Use an anti-hero (tell a story about a dying smoker to strengthen your anti-smoking speech), or use the audience’s own knowledge of a subject (everyone is an expert on himself): Ronald Reagan’s famous campaign line, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”
  6. Use emotions. You don’t have to cry on stage. Just make people care. Why are people in the room with you? What problem do they want to solve? What will their lives look like if they solve that problem? Telling people they’re going to make more money is good (almost everyone wants a bigger house, a nicer car, etc), but don’t forget the emotional power of reminding them of their sense of duty, or how nice it feels to get an admiring gaze from one’s spouse.
  7. Use stories. People tend to remember stories much better than abstract facts. For example: “Subway sandwiches are healthy. There are 6 different sandwiches with less than 7 grams of fat each.” Compare that to: “Jared was really fat, and he couldn’t get a date to save his life, but he ate Subway sandwiches every day for a year, and now he’s thin and he has a hot girlfriend.”

It’s easy to list these 6 things, or to say, “Yes, of course, that’s good advice.” But it’s very hard to actually do these 6 things, and people can almost never do them alone. That’s why we work on them intensively with our face-to-face clients.

By the way, there’s an excellent book about overcoming the Curse of Knowledge, Made To Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath. In fact, these 6 tips were taken directly from that book. We highly recommend that book. Thank you Chip and Dan!

Click here for Method #7. It’s one of Matt’s personal favorites!

Related Posts

The point

The point

In this episode of The White Rabbit podcast... ...Alper makes an interesting point, that the value of a presentation is not in convincing people to support you, it's in reassuring your...

The right questions

The right questions

99% of my clients are not native speakers of English. (Fun fact: Did you know that, by far, most speakers of English are not native speakers of English?) And, quite dependably, every single one of those clients asks at some point, "How is my English," or some other...

Stalk the board

Stalk the board

This is a great article, it made me so excited and I jumped for joy many times upon reading it! One of my favorite points it makes: Know the board members. Not on average. Every. Single. One. They're all different. I call it "stalk the board"...