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Explainer Tip: Remember the Curse of Knowledge

The following post is a part of a series called "Explainer Tips" where we share lessons we've learned in crafting explanations.

One of the books that I read just before creating our first videos was Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath.  More than almost any other, this book helped me see new opportunities to present ideas in a unique way.  One idea from the book really stands out - it's The Curse of Knowledge

We've all experienced it - in talking to a doctor, an engineer or academic, we get lost. Despite their best efforts, they explain a topic using words and examples that don't make sense to a beginner. These people are suffering from the Curse.

The idea behind the curse of knowledge is that the more we know about something, the harder it is for us to explain it to someone who knows nothing.  We have a hard time being able to imagine what it's like not to know.  For example, think about a lawyer who spent his life reading and writing legal documents, talking to lawyers all day every day, etc.  When you ask this lawyer about tort reform, you're likely to get an explanation that confuses you more. This person knows too much to answer your question in a language you understand.

We're all guilty of having the curse.  We all have something in our life that we know very well - perhaps too well to explain easily.  The key is know that the curse exists.  To be able to recognize the challenge before you. Here's how:

Consider every word. Sometimes a word that is completely natural to you can doom an explanation.  For example, let's say you're a financial planner and you sit down with a young couple and they seem to get everything you're saying.  Then you mention "amortization" as if it were any other word.  You use it every day and the people around you do too.  It may seem that amortization is perfectly normal.  But it's not - their eyes glaze over and the explanation takes a turn for the worst.  You have the curse.

The Remedy

Part of the problem with the curse of knowledge is that we assume too much.  We make assumptions about what people do and don't know.  The stronger the curse, the easier it is to assume. To get around the curse, you can either start with the basics, or get a feeling from your audience about what they know.  Don't assume they speak your language or have your perspective.  If explanation is your goal, impressing them with big words and details are going to work against you.  Your time is better spent accounting for their level of understanding and their context.

Here's a great interview with the Heath brothers by Guy Kawasaki from 2007.

Previous Explainer Tips:

Make People Care

Stop Talking About Technology

Next Up:  Put the WHY Before the HOW