The Curse of Knowledge–Do You Have It?


I bet Adam and Eve never saw this phrase coming thousands of years after that dang apple.

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Nevertheless, here it is: The Curse of Knowledge.

“What in God’s name is she talking about?” you might ask. Well, it’s the golden piece of advice for any writer OR business owner trying get a message to the public.

What is the Curse of Knowledge?

You cannot summarize the curse of knowledge in one sentence. It’s an idea, an understanding.

Think of this: Have you ever listened to a doctor describe a diagnosis, and every term they used scrambled your brains? Or perhaps, a lawyer’s “jargon talk”confused your understanding of a topic even more.  

This doctor, or lawyer, was so engrossed in his or her field of specialty, that upon talking to YOU–an outsider–he or she FORGOT how much they know. Consequently, you did not understand or fully absorb their message or information.

This is the curse of knowledge. And every professional deals with it.

Break the curse!

Journalists know about the dreaded curse. They are some of the foremost experts in taking something complicated, and breaking it down. The result? The average reader can absorb the information.

How can you learn this skill?

First and foremost, self-awareness is key. If you know the curse exists, try to identify when it reveals itself. Here are some other techniques you can use to break the curse:

1) Ask yourself, “Could a 5th-grader understand what I’m trying to explain?” If not, go back and simplify. (Hint: Layman’s terms)

2) Ask a colleague or acquaintance OUTSIDE your field of specialty to review your article, or blog, or video, etc. Then, ask what message they took away. If it’s not what you wanted to convey, you know the curse struck.

3) Your communications are littered with jargon. This is very typical in business or corporate writing. If you’re writing for your executives, then fine. However, if you’re writing to encourage the average person to take action (whether it’s to buy something or donate their time), this type of communication will turn people away.

So tell me, have you been struck with the curse of knowledge? And how did you overcome it?

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9 thoughts on “The Curse of Knowledge–Do You Have It?

  1. I work with university researchers and we have started a program or writing summaries of completed research according to clear language writing and design principles. Called ResearchSnapshots, these are 2 page summaries that answer the questions: what is this about; what did they do; what did they find; how can you use this? Each has a headline (not a journal title) and a box “what you need to know”. We hope that these help diverse audiences overcome the curse or the academic. The summaries can be found at http://www.researchimpact.ca/researchsearch.

  2. As a reporter covering high-tech policy, I always had to translate Hill-speak to techies and tech-speak to policymakers. Frankly, I found both “languages” to be quite silly.

    There are, of course, people who seem to revel in speaking their own knowledge language because, presumably, they think they come across as impressive. There are quite a few of those folks here in D.C. I’d like to print this out and stick it on the windshields of their cars. (They should be grateful I didn’t stick it somewhere else.) 🙂

  3. This is very good advice. Even poets have this curse, making references to obscure lines in obscure works that only scholars would find even remotely interesting. I’m not likely to read someone who does this a lot. Poetry is already hard enough without having to look through a dead poet’s life-long anthology.

  4. Oh MY can I relate to this … not in my own writing, but in my writing FOR academic clients. You have to walk a fine line when it comes to offending the said “knowledge keeper” and explaining why audience is so key to readership (i.e. your audience won’t understand what “time tagging” and “relative variation” is since not all readers are electrical engineers. Some are civil engineers, some are bioengineers, chemical engineers… many not engineers at ALL ). Generally, I think people understand and respect the concept of writing to a wide audience, but on two occasions, I’ve had academicians dig their heels in and refuse to publish a story unless their ‘jargon’ remained. In those cases, even the most gentle explanation about audience/knowledge gaps for readers can be fruitless BECAUSE of what you mention … the curse of knowledge! Great post.

  5. Great advice. I think blogging and writing has helped me with this because I’m constantly remembering that people don’t know me, what I do, and my life. So I try as often as I can to keep the reader in mind. It’s harder at work beacause I find myself in the “thick” of the jargon. But the speechwriting I’m doing now is helping since I’m communicating with people not in the thick of it. Thanks for the reminder!

  6. The curse is obvious when I’m talking to someone. I’m usually fairly quiet, but the curse inspires me to talk a LOT and then the person gets a glazed look on their face. Not good.

    When I’m writing, I can tell when the curse has struck because my writing gets boring. (Okay, some of you might say: more boring than usual. But either way.) When that happens, I can’t find any place to insert a bit of humor. There’s just nothing funny about an information dump.

    So, I’m off to dumb down another blog post . . .

  7. A great reminder to keep the audience squarely in mind! It’s so interesting in my writing life to go back and forth from technical writer to business writer to creative nonfiction and crossing over into fiction–it’s often a moving target, figuring out just how much and what information to include and how to best present it. I knew I had it, just never knew there was a name for it! Curse of Knowledge! A great post!

C'mon, you MUST be thinking something.

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