Six Signs Your Communication Is Suffering From The Curse Of Knowledge (And Six Ways To Fix It)

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.

learn more about Will Hardie

By Will Hardie


Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

You're reading Entrepreneur Middle East, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.

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 empathizing 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 at the International School of Communication, an enterprise that I co-founded.

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, say "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:

1. JARGON A sure-fire sign of the curse of knowledge 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.

2. 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.

3. ABSTRACTION The better we understand an idea, the more prone we are to forget to ground it in concrete examples and real, practical illustrations. The facts and narratives that "color 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.

4. 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 empathizing with others who need to be walked through the persuasive process of "how we got here."

5. 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.

6. 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:

1/ Dumb down just enough Be aware that because of the curse of knowledge, 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.

2/ 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.

3/ 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.

4/ 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.

5/ 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 pro- active "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)."

6/ Reahearse 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.

Related: Innovation Nation: How The UAE Is Establishing Itself As A Global Frontrunner In Game-Changing Technologies

Will Hardie

Co-founder, International School of Communication

Will Hardie is a communication strategist, advisor and coach with more than 20 years’ experience working in more than 50 countries. He studied experimental psychology for a master’s at Oxford and later journalism and politics in the US. Will joined the Reuters news agency in London and took foreign correspondent postings in Brussels, Stockholm, and Belgrade. He specialized in financial and economic news, and reported on a many high-profile breaking stories. He covered major international summits, interviewed ministers, heads of state, CEOs and other senior executives, and managed regional teams of journalists.  

Back in London, Will co-founded Pinnacle PR, a global communications consultancy, and the International School of Communication (ISOC), a specialist professional training company. Will is one of the world’s leading communications advisors. He has executed large projects to create communication strategies and systems for national governments and major corporations. For six years, Will was the chief advisor to the head of communications in the office of H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, UAE Vice President and Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai. During that time, he advised and helped prepare for many interviews. Will has personally media trained more than 15 high-ranking cabinet ministers as well as five Sheikhs. He has also been involved behind the scenes in stage managing large-scale announcements and news events (e.g. Emirates Mars Mission) and managing the media dynamics around reputational challenges and crises.  

Elsewhere, Will has counselled hundreds of cabinet ministers, senior politicians, CEOs, and other senior executives across Europe, North America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. He specializes in executive coaching, media training, crisis communication, strategic messaging and communication strategy development. He has led long-term projects to develop top-level communication strategies for federal and national governments, and written crisis plans and positioning for global top-500 companies. Will lives in Dubai where he divides his time between managing ISOC and delivering consulting and training projects worldwide.

Related Topics

Women Entrepreneur™

A Life Well Lived: Sudha Murty, Founder And Chairperson, Infosys Foundation

Insights and inspiration from the Indian educator, author and philanthropist, and the co-founder of the Infosys Foundation.

Growth Strategies

A Guide To The Top Angel Investor Groups in Saudi Arabia

In this article, we have listed some of the most notable and active angel investor groups in Saudi Arabia, in no particular order.

Thought Leaders

The Collapse of Credit Suisse: A Cautionary Tale of Resistance to Hybrid Work

This cautionary tale serves as a reminder for business leaders to adapt to the changing world of work and prioritize their workforce's needs and preferences.


Startup Spotlight: UAE-Based Lisan's AI-Powered Proofreading Platform Guarantees Error-Free Arabic Writing

The 12 products Alasadi alludes to aim to correct 12 specific types of errors, which include spelling, grammatical, morphological, semantic, and stylistic errors, as well as mistakes related to checking quotations and proper names.

News and Trends

Calling All KSA-Based Hospitality Startups: Apply For Future Hospitality Summit 2023's Startup Den By March 31

Out of all applicants, 10 finalists will be chosen to compete at The Startup Den on May 9, 2023, at Al Faisaliah Hotel in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.