The more you know, the harder it is to remove the curse of knowledge from your writing. After years of education and experience in your field, you may no longer even notice when you’re baffling others with the concepts, obscure language and shorthand of your daily life. But though your prospects and clients may not know something you know, they are smart and sophisticated and they will seek out a professional who’s easier to communicate with if you don’t clean up your language.
The failure to communicate
The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias that leads a well-informed person (like you) to assume, illogically, that someone else knows as much about your subject as you do. It’s the difficulty of imagining what it’s like for someone else not to know something you know well. In writing and speaking, the curse of knowledge often appears as jargon, missing steps that seem too obvious to mention, or a lack of detail about the situation and logic followed.
The challenge of professional language
If you’re in professional services — an architect, accountant, engineer, doctor, research scientist, or lawyer for example —you may feel an additional challenge from the mistaken belief that a certain amount of jargon is necessary to establish credibility. Or perhaps you believe your clients are “above average” in their sophistication — successful entrepreneurs, or other engineers, for example, who you think understand more than they do. Or you might be concerned about ‘dumbing down’ important concepts. For multiple reasons, professionals and academics steeped in specialized subjects can struggle to write an accessible blog post or a case study to attract potential new clients or support positive social change.
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.”
-- Chip and Dan Heath, Made to Stick
A dense subject done well
I was reminded of the "unnatural but not impossible" quote as I drove back to the office after a lunch meeting. My ear caught a great example of an expert in his field rising above the curse of knowledge. By most standards, the subject is dry (and dense) — how electric rates are set, the recent history of deregulation and how the regulatory environment is keeping up with new forms of small power generation. During a 20-minute interview on the Vermont Public Radio program Vermont Edition, long-time energy consultant Rich Sedano of the Regulatory Assistance Project explained Electric Utility Regulation 101 in simple language. He defined his industry terms as he talked, provided relevant context and offered familiar analogies for everyday listeners. Listening to Sedano’s interview will be time well spent if you’ve ever despaired at the thought of explaining a complex subject clearly and succinctly to a lay audience.
A critical subject not done well
Scientists writing on climate change have not done as well, in general, in conquering the curse of knowledge. A table from the article “Communicating the Science of Climate Change,” by Richard C. J. Somerville and Susan Joy Hassol, from the October 2011 issue of Physics Today, page 48, provides a list of commonly used terms that have different meanings for scientists and the public.
How to remove the curse of knowledge from your writing
If you want to improve your communications, here are a few suggestions. (You might also want to check out Steven Pinker’s book, The Sense of Style.)
- The key is to know the curse exists. Start by acknowledging your very human vulnerability to this cognitive bias.
- Write your piece and then review it looking for opportunities to…
- Throw out jargon
- Explain abbreviations (and use them sparingly)
- Liberally use for example, as in, and such as to explain technical terms
- What is an example of leveraging your assets?
- What is an example of a key performance indicator?
- Commit to the concrete (tangible objects people can imagine through the five senses)
- Tell a story to illustrate a key point
- Use metaphors or analogies
- Read what you wrote out loud
- Ideally, ask someone in your target audience to review the piece and ask you questions
The Curse of Knowledge, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, Harvard Business Review
Are You Suffering From the Curse of Knowledge? Lifehacker
The Sense of Style, by Steven Pinker
Editor's Note: Originally published on Feb 2, 2015. Expanded and updated June 13, 2019 based on popular demand.