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When your audience haven't got a clue what you just said: How to Break The Curse of Knowledge



It's been 3 minutes and we're still staring at my 6 y.o niece laying as still as she can (face down) on the floor.


"Aeroplane? - chocolate bar?"

"phone?"


We're playing charades, shouting out random objects in the hope one of the them with be correct.


"You might have to add something more." my brother says but she still remains as still as she can.


Her sister is getting annoyed, "Try something else."


The timer ran out 2 minutes ago


"What's the word?"


She gets up off the floor laughing and turns the games card to show us her word.


"Ironing board" she says laughing.

Authors Chip and Dan Heath in their book Made to Stick described the curse of knowledge as "Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has “cursed” us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind." In 1990, Elizabeth Newton, a Stanford psychology grad demonstrated the Curse of Knowledge by asking a group of students to tap the rhythm of a popular song on a table to another group of students with the listeners asked to guess the song. Over the course of the experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. When the “tappers” were asked to predict how many of their “listeners” would guess the song correctly, they predicted about 50%. The actual percentage of listeners who guessed the song correctly was a mere 2.5%. (1 in 40 songs) The Curse of Knowledge stems from a simple premise: the more you know about a subject, the harder it becomes to imagine what it's like not to know it and it can strike at any time for any type of writing. And as writers and speakers, we’re all tappers and we all overly estimate how much our readers will understand our message. We assume that our reader has the same level of knowledge as us, and talk from our place, rather than from theirs. This communication gap can result in making your content less accessible with potential customers feeling disengaged, ignored, and unfollowing you.


Here are 7 ways to break the curse of knowledge

1) Use simple words and be clear Don't make your audience work to understand your message. Clarity is vital. It’s better to be too clear than slightly technical. To write with more clarity, it’s best to assume your readers know nothing and simplify your content. Break up your sentences. Find those 30-40 word sentences and chop them into bite-size paragraphs or listicles. Mailchimp does a good job of chunking their words.


2) Use your Reader's Words Avoid using jargon and buzzwords and stick to using your audience's language. Unless you’re writing for industry peers or colleagues, try to avoid words that are not familiar to anybody outside your field. You might think that you’re not being accurate, but your audience will appreciate it. As a rule of thumb, use the words that your audience would use. How to make your Message Both Technical and Clear


3) Use visuals.

About 65% of people are visual learners, meaning they absorb information better and faster when images are used to explain.

Compelling visual content and Infographics make it easier to digest data.

(source Edrawsoft)


4) Add an explanation If you still have to use technical terms (there might be many reasons and even if you're audience is on the same level as knowledge as you), make sure you add an explanation or clarification.

Threading is a way to explain something complex in a simple way. It's when you thread your sentences together by connecting a new concept to an old one or one that your audience is already familiar with.

For example: Read these sentences:

The dog is in front of the cat. The mouse is behind

the bird. The cat is on the left of the mouse.

Confused? Each sentence requires a new image which makes your brain have to reengage each time to understand.

But if we swap the last two sentences we ease the readability:

The dog is in front of the cat. The cat is on the

left of the mouse. The mouse is behind the bird.




5) Ditch the abstract and get specific Leaders often speak in abstractions. We've all read mission statements that leave us scratching our heads.

So instead of vague promises: "Our mission is to provide our customer with the best service experience.” Try something specific that differentiates you from the competition: Our Customer Service mission is to answer every phone call within three rings and to resolve problems within 7 working days.”

6) Provide examples. Harness the visual power of metaphors, comparisons and mental images (also great for abstract concepts) This is a compelling way to help your readers picture what you’re saying. We do this all the time when we speak, so why not use it in your copy? Unlike abstractions, examples put concepts into perspective. It can take the form of a metaphor or a simile. As long as it paints a picture. By giving visual examples your reader can make sense of things, using information they already understand.



Apple does an amazing job by comparing it's technology to our human bodies. They name their features such as Neural Engine, Liquid Retina, Touch ID, which help their customers create a comparative context to it's complex technology.

It's important to recognize and address the Curse of Knowledge as communication creatives by simplifying complex information, using concise language, and providing clear descriptions and visual comparisons, you can successfully bridge the gap between your expertise and your audience's understanding. As you noticed I used all the above 6 techniques in my opening introduction. 7) Lastly use people within your community who aren't knowledgeable about the subject such as family, friends, or colleagues to review your communication. Try and explain your topic to them - Do they understand it? Get them to tell you what they think you are trying to explain.


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