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‘The Curse of Knowledge’ and How to Keep it from Destroying Your Writing

We all probably remember a high school teacher or college professor whose knowledge and perspectives simply didn’t connect with us. Although they clearly knew their stuff, they struggled to make it comprehensible, compelling, or relevant. It may have been enough to shake our confidence or interest in the subject matter altogether. Perhaps we have been in a situation where we have tried to explain a concept to someone who just couldn’t seem to grasp what we were saying. No matter how much the information was simplified, our words were met with blank stares.

No matter what side of the table you were on, at one point or another we have all been guilty of a dangerous cognitive behavior known as “the curse of knowledge”.

So, what does it mean to be “cursed”? To put it simply, you are unable to imagine what it’s like to not know or understand something – a topic, a discipline, a formula, etc. – which, in turn, makes it difficult to communicate that knowledge to less informed people.

While this can be complicated in any situation, it becomes especially unfortunate when it happens in our writing. Unlike with face-to-face interactions, readers can’t ask questions and writers can’t evaluate reactions. Your online content is especially vulnerable to the curse of knowledge. When you make inaccurate assumptions about your audience’s views or knowledge, you may lose their attention and confidence. If your content is written or edited by subject matter experts, you should be especially wary of this risk.

Here are three ways you can protect yourself from falling victim to the Curse of Knowledge:


  1. Know Your Audience

Understanding your audience and how well they will understand your subject should shape the way you approach it. If you’re addressing an audience that has a strong working knowledge of your subject matter, then feel free to skip the fundamentals and jump into more dense material.

If their base knowledge is low, then start from the beginning and ease your way into the more complex details.

  1. Keep an Eye on Language

In an effort to make yourself sound more expert-like on your topic, you may be tempted to litter your writing with industry specific jargon, acronyms, or fancy idioms… don’t. By allowing yourself to do this, you’re telling your audience that if they can’t understand you, they shouldn’t be listening to you. Hubspot shares a great example on how best to explain a topic to an audience with a low base level knowledge of your topic:

  • Bad: “Let’s open the Kimono, take a peek at the email CTR, and break down scalable successes.”
  • Better: “Let’s look at the data, evaluate the email click through rate, and capitalize on what’s working.”
  • Best: “Let’s see how many people opened our emails and do more of what works.”

Don’t make your audience work to understand what you are talking about. If people aren’t able to understand you, they’re going to tune you out – and no one wants that!

  1. Avoid Abstractions

Leaders of industry often speak in abstractions because their experience helps them visualize broad concepts. Instead, using examples is a great way to connect with your audience. An example can take the form of a simile, a metaphor, or even a story. As long as it paints a picture, it’s doing its job. In any case, examples make sense of things using the information we already understand to forge connections.

Storytelling is an easy way to dodge the curse of knowledge because it forces us to use concrete language. We love stories because they help us see and understand the world through a different perspective. However, don’t be vague. Stories are supposed to have a beginning, middle, and end. Be clear and specific to help your audience avoid any confusion.

When you’re immersed in anything for a long time, it’s easy to forget that the rest of the world isn’t. Avoid the Curse of Knowledge’s disastrous effects by putting yourself in the shoes of your audience, and being aware that at one point, perhaps long ago, you were just like them.


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