Six signs your communication is suffering from the Curse of Knowledge (and six ways to fix it)

communication media training public speaking soft skills
Prof. Baruch Fischhoff

Imagine you need to get your head around a difficult new topic – quantum theory, for example, or genetic engineering. Would you be better off talking to a Nobel Prize-winning genius, or a young scientist working in their lab? You might get lucky, if the wise professor is also a great communicator, but surprisingly often you’d learn more from the lowly assistant.

The reason is a cognitive bias that psychologists call the Curse of Knowledge. It’s a software glitch that causes our brains to overestimate how much other people understand. When we master an idea, we delete the memory of how it felt not to understand it. We have a blind spot when it comes to empathising with people who don’t know what we know. The Curse of Knowledge causes experts to speak over the heads of non-experts: the wiser they get, the less effective they become at explaining themselves.

Understanding and compensating for the Curse of Knowledge is a powerful way for all of us to become better communicators in all kinds of professional and interpersonal interactions. It’s one of the most universal issues that comes up in public speaking and media training.

Try this out, for a test of the Curse of Knowledge in action. Tap your finger on the table to the rhythm of a song – “Happy Birthday” or “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” – and ask someone to guess the song. It will feel obvious to you, but unexpectedly hard for them to identify. We get the same feeling in games like Charades and Pictionary in which one person has to demonstrate an idea and others have to guess what it is. When you’re the one doing the acting or drawing, it’s infuriating – perplexing – how long it takes the others to get it.

If you’ve ever wondered why our political leaders and decision makers don’t seem to be the people with the best ideas, one answer may be that the people with the best ideas were the least able to communicate them.

Here's what failed communication looks like, when a speaker is in the grip of the Curse of Knowledge:

  • Jargon – a sure-fire sign of the Curse in action is when a speaker uses an acronym, abbreviation or technical term that is not familiar to a significant number of listeners. When jargon is deeply embedded in our everyday language of thought, we have a blind spot for the fact that it means nothing to an outsider to the topic.
  • Pace – When we already get something, we tend to dash through it much too fast. We underestimate, instinctively, how much time other people’s brains will need to chew it over. In fact people’s bandwidth for absorbing new information is shockingly narrow, from the perspective of the person who already has that information already installed and running.
  • Abstraction – the better we understand an idea, the more prone we are to we forget to ground it in concrete examples and real, practical illustrations. The facts and narratives that “colour in” strategic concepts aren’t necessary when you already grasp them – but they are essential to those new to the topic who are struggling to comprehend it.
  • Assumptions – When we’re already at the conclusion, we tend to rush the argument and omit premises and logical steps that listeners would find useful to follow. Instinctively, because we don’t need convincing, we have a blind spot for empathising with others who need to be walked through the persuasive process of “how we got here”.
  • Context – Speakers forget to connect their topic to the broad picture of why it matters, because in their perspective its significance feels so obvious. People are receptive to new ideas when they are explicitly connected to something familiar to their experience. Speakers in the grip of the Curse of Knowledge often fail to present their ideas in a framework of relevance and meaning. This is the “so what” blind spot.
  • Buy-in – when we care deeply about something, it’s too easy to assume by default that others must feel the same way, and to be surprised when they don’t. The trouble is, as any schoolteacher knows, the key to implanting an idea in someone’s mind is first establishing the motivation to understand and learn. This is the “what’s in it for me” blind spot.

What, then, can we do about the Curse of Knowledge? Cognitive biases tend to be baked into the brain – just knowing about them isn’t enough for them to vanish. Here are some tactics that you can remind yourself to use, that help align what you have to say with the framework in which it will be most readily heard and understood.

  • Dumb down just enough. Be aware that because of the Curse, your natural state will be to assume slightly too much knowledge, and to speak slightly over people’s heads. It’s hard to calibrate dumbing down, because the advanced stuff is often what’s interesting to us. If you feel like you’re slightly over-simplifying things, you’re probably in the right zone. If in doubt, dumb right down, then dumb back up to the sweet spot.
  • Frame your ideas. People grasp new knowledge much more easily when you give them a structure. Stories and narratives are some of the most versatile structures. Walk people through the logic of how you came to understand the ideas you are trying to communicate. Start with a concise “zoom-out” to make explicit the connection between what you’re saying and a familiar context, i.e., why your ideas are relevant and useful.
  • Simplify your words. Most jargon has a natural-language synonym. If your topic area has many technical terms, consider working up a “glossary” that you (and colleagues) can use to translate sophisticated concepts into everyday language.
  • Create an avatar in your mind for the least sophisticated person in the room, and speak as if you were speaking to that person. You might personify that person as a child, or an elderly relative, or even yourself on a bad day, before your coffee, feeling distracted. Communicate to that person, and there’s a good chance your ideas will land with everyone.
  • Predict misconceptions. Many of the things that people might misunderstand or fail to grasp are likely to be come up again and again, over time, and for different people. Think of it like a proactive Frequently Asked Questions section. Consider what people are likely to be confused about, and enlighten them upfront: “you might be wondering if (x) – in fact, (y).”
  • Rehearse with a non-expert. By definition, the Curse of Knowledge blinds us to our own blind spots. Try as we might, we will end up being unclear about something, precisely because it is so clear in our own mind. Recruit a non-expert, and try out your communication with them. Invite frank feedback to find out to what extent they got it. Ask them to repeat back to you the gist of what they understood – this is often a shocking exercise in how little information goes in. Recalibrate, and try again.

ISOC course links

This content relates to the following short courses at the International School of Communications, available live online and also face-to-face at our training centres in London and Dubai:

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