Coping With ‘The Curse of Knowledge’

The so-called Curse of Knowledge came to my attention through the popular ‘Made To Stick’ book of Dan and Chip Heath where they advocated using ‘sticky ideas’ to help overcome the problem. They also commented on it during a Q&A session with Guy Kawasaki:

“ People tend to think that having a great idea is enough, and they think the communication part will come naturally. We are in deep denial about the difficulty of getting a thought out of our own heads and into the heads of others. It’s just not true that, “If you think it, it will stick.”

And that brings us to the villain of our book: The Curse of Knowledge. Lots of research in economics and psychology shows that when we know something, it becomes hard for us to imagine not knowing it. As a result, we become lousy communicators. Think of a lawyer who can’t give you a straight, comprehensible answer to a legal question. His vast knowledge and experience renders him unable to fathom how little you know. So when he talks to you, he talks in abstractions that you can’t follow. And we’re all like the lawyer in our own domain of expertise.

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.” Experts just need to devote a little time to applying the basic principles of stickiness.“

The issue of The Curse of Knowledge is a very familiar one. From my own business experience, it’s especially problematic when meetings involve multi-disciplinary staff eg a product development meeting that involves sales managers as well as technical or research experts. The aim of the meeting is to develop one joint and compelling understanding of the issue at hand but instead often delivers a selection of quite different and sometimes conflicting understandings!

Common issues that increase the The Curse of Knowledge include:

  • People have actually forgotten the basics
  • Being smart but difficult to understand is perceived as good for job preservation
  • Ego and status, showing-off
  • It’s hard, it may require a lot of work from both sides
  • Assumed not to be a critical problem
  • Specialisation early on leads to knowledge fragmentation
  • Communication skills rarely taught as a key skill rather picked up ad-hoc

To combat this, The Curse of Knowledge can be decreased by:

  • Using ‘sticky’ messages – easily remembered and disseminated
  • Having ‘jargon free’ days with fun penalties – that’s probably a bit radical
  • Training and practising having ‘enhanced conversations’
  • Studying and implementing how others explain things simply and clearly eg science popularisations in prize-winning books and magazine articles
  • Encouraging the use of evocative metaphors, analogies and proxies
  • Exploring different types of meetings and outputs (stories, pictures, mindmaps etc) to see which delivers better joint understandings of complex issues

As an example of setting up and running different types of meetings to spark better conversations, take a look at the work of David Gurteen and his Knowledge and Innovation Cafes.

Overall, two insightful quotes of Einstein seem particularly and perennially relevant:

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

”If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.“

Mind you, easier said than done…


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