Here’s the thing about the curse of knowledge, no matter the familiarity of the subject, as an expert or authority, you can become trapped by the very thing you’ve mastered for years.
In every respect, knowledge is a gift. But communicating with those who lack that same knowledge can feel like scaling Mount Everest. It’s because as an expert or authority, it’s super easy to assume that those you’re conversing with share the same knowledgeable background.
If you find your words, written or spoken, filled with jargon and acronyms that leave those with whom you communicate confused or overwhelmed, then it’s the curse of knowledge.
This cognitive bias keeps people like you, experts, top executives, and CEOs from communicating what customers, and employees, care about most in a language they understand.
No matter your role or title within an organization, to some degree, we all struggle to avoid the “curse of knowledge.”
What is the Origin of The Curse of Knowledge?
The phrase curse of knowledge has a history of study in both pedagogy and psychology. This cognitive bias is attributed to university professors and first-year students in Pamela Hinds’ 1999 The Curse of Expertise study. In this study, experts, intermediate students, and novices were asked to estimate the time it would take novice students to complete a task.
It’s almost too easy to say that novice students would have the most difficulty assessing their performance. However, those with the most expertise gave the worst estimates or timelines to a beginner’s performance.
Yet, it was the subjects with intermediate knowledge that outperformed their professors as well as the novices in estimating beginner performance and timelines.
Could it be since they were recent novices themselves that it allowed them to assess the needs of the newest pupils more accurately? Could they easily identify the information gaps from experts’ who had once taught them as beginners?
Were the intermediate students more astute in avoiding the same assumptions made by professors regarding the performance level of the beginning students?
The Curse of Knowledge is Fueled by Assumptions
Both Carl Weiman’s Why Intuition About Teaching Often Fails and Chip and Dan Heath’s book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die reference an infamous 1990 study by Elizabeth Newton.
As a Stanford graduate student of psychology, Elizabeth Newton wanted to test the theory behind the curse of knowledge. She conducted an experiment where people were either tappers’ or listeners.’ Tappers tapped out, on the desk in front of them, a familiar and popular song like Happy Birthday or Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star and the listener’s job was to guess the song being tapped out.
Newton also asked the tappers to give an estimate as to how many of the listeners would correctly guess the song being tapped out. They estimated that for every two listeners, one listener would guess correctly.
Overall, 120 songs were tapped out, and only three listeners got the name of the songs correct, a success rate of 2.5 percent. The result came nowhere near the 50 percent estimated by the tappers.
Once You Know Something You Cannot Unknow It
The fact of the matter is that once you know something, even the most complex subjects, you cannot unknow it. You can’t even imagine yourself NOT knowing it. You simply can’t recreate that state of mind again.
It would be like unknowing a popular song. Or not knowing everything you know about your significant other after you’ve been together for years. It’s impossible to reverse because now it’s become a curse, making it all the more difficult to share that knowledge with others.
Just like the tappers and listeners in Newton’s study, experts and authorities can suffer from the curse of knowledge.
It’s the reason why professors have difficulty recreating the unknowing’ state of mind of their novice students.
It’s the same reason why executives can’t place themselves in the position of their employees or prospects who are hearing their marketing idea for the first time.
The only way to correct the imbalance, to override that curse of knowledge, is to toss away the assumptions you hold about your customers and prospects and start fresh.
Assumptions about Prospects Can Make or Break an Influencer in Different Ways
It happens innocently enough. As an authority or expert, you assume your audience has a level of understanding that rivals your expertise when, in fact, your target audience has no understanding of it at all.
Assumptions don’t tip the information imbalance in your favor if you want to engage with your target audience.
To break through this information imbalance, understand that two things may be occurring.
- The audience or prospects are confused about the benefits of the products or services. Prospects may like you and want to do business with you but are wary of following through.
- Prospects leave for a competitor who clearly explains their benefits in a way that solves a prospect’s pain point(s).
What Experts and Authorities Should Do Instead
Never base marketing plans on assumptions. Base marketing plans on research. No gut feelings or intuition can ever supersede honest facts and stats.
Besides using surveys and polling social media followers to understand how they feel about your idea, products, or vision, tactfully use these methods to gauge their knowledge level. Ask those questions that are obvious to you but may not be to your prospects. And be prepared to be blown away by their responses. It’s amazing what you’ll find from a prospect’s POV.
Read their feedback on review sites. Besides understanding whether they like your ideas or products, use the reviews to find out about your customers. What words do they use to describe what they’re using? What words or phrases do they use to explain how they use your idea or product? When and where are they using it? Notice what words or phrases they use to explain what they’re looking for to solve a problem.
Use every arsenal at your disposal to find out what customers are saying about your products. Consider onsite surveys that prompt prospects to answer a few quick questions about what brought them to you for help. Data collected from Live Chats can identify the most common questions from prospects. It can also reveal what’s missing in your copy, product, or service.
Keep observing until you find what matters most to your prospects and customers.
Because this will be the only area, as an expert, authority, or influencer, you can never, ever really know enough about.
Assuming your Ego is More Important than a Useful Explanation
Be wary of taking offense when someone does not immediately understand your expertise in the same manner your peers or colleagues do. It’s a mindset held by an expert’s need to resort to accuracy and talk about everything they know about their expertise. The more accurate the information, the better, right?
The more prospects know about my services and expertise, the better, right?
But if you’re explaining how your expertise or product can help prospects with convoluted language and unrelated analogies, no matter how accurate your information, you’ve lost them.
The result is a mixed message. Because what they need is just enough useful information to solve an issue.
The Curse of Knowledge Keeps Experts from Teaching Prospects
You’re an authority who engages and interacts with others where and when your influence is needed, but you refrain from educating others about your expertise in a language they’ll understand.
If this is you, you need to extend your sphere of influence as an expert beyond just what you can do and embrace the idea of what issues your ideas can do for others.
When you’re not teaching prospects, it leads to vague assumptions about the value you bring.
With vague assumptions, you leave it up to others to guess what your message is saying.
You’re more focused on talking about what you know. The more time spent convincing those around you that you’re an authority means, the less time you’re using that expertise to help them solve an issue.
Escape the Curse of Knowledge Trap
Just get out of your head, and begin engaging prospects differently.
- First, understand and accept the fact that your prospects know absolutely nothing about your subject of expertise.
- Now imagine the questions they would ask.
- Write those answers to the questions down.
- Rewrite those answers in the same language your customers use.
- Removing the jargon is the quickest way to avoid confusing your customer. For instance, if you’re a surgeon, how would you explain “laparoscopic” to someone with no understanding of the procedure, let alone any knowledge of surgery?
- What connections would you make to help them understand your value without using technical jargon?
- What analogies could you use to help them better understand its use from their perspective?
To place yourself in your prospect’s shoes is a difficult behavior to adopt. But you can stop assuming, drop the jargon and engage in the language your customers understand. It’s a skill every expert, authority, or influencer must master if they want to break the curse of knowledge.
Sylvia Burleigh, a content marketing writer with a degree in English has 20 years experience as a technical and content writer for companies, such as IBM, AT&T and Elsevier. Her clients include employment lawyers, digital marketers, HR consultants, dentists and small business owners.