Ahh, the Curse of Knowledge. Have you ever noticed when you’re explaining what you do to others, the person(s) you’re speaking with seems confused? You’re not sure when, but you are sure at some point during your explanation, you lost them.

This is frustrating, and it really shouldn't be that way.

Why is it so hard to talk about what we do? After all, it is what we do, and we know more about what we do than anyone else.

As it turns out, this is precisely the problem.

In fact, many of my clients come to me for this very reason; they struggle to communicate about their business, products, or services to others in a way that makes people want to listen.

The same is true for all of us. Freelancers, job seekers, career professionals, coaches, consultants, and insert your favorite profession. We all struggle to communicate what we do in a simple and easy to understand manner.

There’s a reason the “Tell me about yourself” or “What do you do” questions are the hardest to answer.

So if you struggle to communicate the value you provide to others, the good news is, it doesn't have to be this way. You can adapt.


What is the Curse of Knowledge

According to Wikipedia the curse of knowledge is:

“a cognitive bias that occurs when communicating with others and we unknowingly assume that those we are speaking with have the background knowledge to understand us.”

In other words, you know so much about what you do, you assume others have the same knowledge.

As a result, your mind unconsciously skips over details you take for granted when explaining things like what you do. You do this because you've been doing your “thing” for so long it has become second nature to you. You've forgotten, what you take for granted may be brand new to someone else.

The funny thing about the curse of knowledge (the curse) is it can be both good and bad.

Internal to your organization, the curse can make you more efficient. It can help you make decisions faster and finish projects quicker. Why? Because you know the lingo, the ins and outs, who to talk to and when.

You know this through your own experiences. Experiences you have internalized and draw upon when facing similar situations. It’s like to our primal, fight or flight instincts.

We react in specific ways professionally based on our previous experiences. We know what we can say when and to whom. If something is not going the way it is supposed to; you probably know who to speak with to get it fixed.

It helps to visualize the curse of knowledge as a scale from one to ten. A one equal zero which means you have little to no understanding of a particular subject matter or area of expertise. A ten indicates you have expert knowledge.

The curse of knowledge scale one to ten

(image from http://siswrightsseminaryjourney.blogspot.com/)

Experts typically talk about their business or industry in the eight to ten range. If you’ve ever sat through a corporate finance meeting, you've experienced this range first-hand.

Experts, who are good leaders, will recognize when they are “speaking above someone’s head,” and will try to “dumb it down” so to speak.

However, in most cases, when they do they typically only get to about a six on the one to ten scale. Better, but not good enough.

Why does this matter? It matters because most people “buy” or in a corporate setting, “buy-in” when communication is in the one to three range.

This leads to an undeniable truth about people and leadership.

People do not always follow the best leaders. Instead, they follow the leaders who communicate the best. They follow the leaders who communicate the clearest.

Think about that for a minute. If you're not clear, people will not listen or follow you.

This is the impact of the curse of knowledge.


Do you suffer from the curse of knowledge?

How do you know if you suffer from the curse of knowledge? As stated at the beginning, we all suffer from the curse of knowledge. No one is immune from its “power.”

Fortunately, spotting the curse in communication whether written or verbal is easy.

Anytime I visit a website or ask a client what they do I listen or look for clues such as insider language, acronyms, and other industry words that sound mostly like a foreign language to an “outsider.”

As experts, insider language and acronyms are ingrained in our vernacular. While this helps when communicating with other experts or team members with the same understanding, we need to remember it puts those who are not team members or experts in an awkward position.

When the curse of knowledge takes over in a conversation or a meeting, it’s almost guaranteed non-experts will tune out, very quickly.


Overcoming the curse of knowledge

Overcoming the curse of knowledge is simple but not easy. It starts by thinking about the person or people you are speaking too. Ask yourself, what is their level of understanding, what are their goals, objectives, pains, frustrations, and aspirations?

Without knowing these details about your customer, you are wasting your time, marketing dollars and resources.

Many companies rely on demographic information for insights into their customers. This information provides a great starting point for understanding the characteristics of a targeted population Things such as income level can help determine price points for your product and services.

However, I’ve never seen a single piece of demographic information that tells me how a particular problem makes a customer feel.

I’ve also not seen any demographic information telling me a customer's aspirations or goals, yet if we are going to resonate with them, these are things we need to know about our customers.

Without this information, we fall victim to the curse of knowledge.

We use our language, not our customer’s language. We talk about our products and services, not our customer’s problems and frustrations.

We talk about how great we (our company, products, and services) are instead of how we can help our customers become great.

This is true whether you are in a sales meeting or an interview. If you want to succeed and kick the curse to the curb, you need to talk about how you solve problems for other people.

So the next time you are having a conversation, whether in person or a meeting, listen to what your customer (customers can be peers BTW) is telling you. Identify the problem they are struggling with and tell a story they can enter into, instead of one that turns them away.

Perhaps the best way to overcome the curse of knowledge is to remember that your brand (personal or business), is not the hero of the story you're telling.

Your customer is the hero and if you want to make them feel that way, stop talking about you and start talking about them.

When you do, the curse of knowledge will fade into the background, and like E.F. Hutton, people will listen.

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