How to Defeat Your Most Dangerous Writing Habit: 7 Ways to Lift 'The Curse of Knowledge'

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Eddie Shleyner
Eddie Shleyner



When I was eight, I became stuck on a particularly tough Where’s Waldo scene. It was so difficult that I became convinced that Waldo -- the character I needed to find -- wasn’t in it at all. I began thinking the whole thing was a joke, full of red herrings.

And then I found him. And after that, I could never un-see him. And, strangely, whenever I saw a classmate struggling with that same difficult scene, I’d become frustrated, even angry.

“I can’t believe you’re not finding him,” I’d say. “It’s so easy!”

Little did I know, my unreasonable behavior was the product of a dangerous cognitive bias, one we’re all susceptible to: The Curse of Knowledge.

The Curse afflicts kids and teachers, content marketers and salespeople, corporate executives, cab drivers, and presidents.

Here’s how it could be hurting you ...

What is “The Curse of Knowledge?”

If you’re “Cursed,” then you are unable to imagine what it’s like not to know or understand something -- a topic, discipline, craft, what have you -- which, in turn, makes it hard to communicate that knowledge to less-informed people.

In their book, Made to Stick, the Heath Brothers provide a typical example:

Think of a lawyer who can’t give you a straight, comprehensible answer to a legal question. His vast knowledge and experience renders him unable to fathom how little you know. So when he talks to you, he talks in abstractions that you can’t follow. And we’re all like the lawyer in our own domain of expertise.”

That said, let’s set the anecdotal evidence aside and focus on the science:

The Stanford Tapping Experiment

In 1990, Elizabeth Newton, a Stanford graduate student in psychology, demonstrated the Curse of Knowledge using an exercise that asked one group of students to tap the rhythm of a popular song (e.g., Happy Birthday) on a table to another group of students who were listening. The listeners were then asked to guess the song.

Over the course of the experiment, more than 100 songs were tapped out. When the “tappers” we're asked to predict how many of their “listeners” would guess the song correctly, they landed on 50%. The actual percentage of listeners who could figure out which song the rhythm belonged to a mere 2.5%.

This huge discrepancy occurred because the tappers couldn’t un-hear (or un-know) the song’s actual melody, which played in their head as they tapped. This caused them to overestimate their ability. The listeners, of course, didn't hear a melody but, rather, a dull, monotonous knocking. This caused them to almost always misidentify the song.

In this experiment, the tappers’ knowledge grossly distorted the reality of the situation and, in effect, created a communication breakdown as well as a major expectations mismatch.

Can your writing be cursed?

The Curse of Knowledge is a documented cognitive bias. It affects us all, especially when we write. It’s particularly dangerous on paper because, unlike being face-to-face, readers (i.e., listeners) can’t ask questions and writers (i.e., tappers) can’t gauge reactions.

The Curse can sneak its way into an email, a landing page, a web page, or a blog post, which is why anyone who writes should be perking up right now ...

Here’s everything you need to know to protect yourself:

7 Ways to Lift the Curse of Knowledge

Ironically, the more you know about the Curse of Knowledge, the less likely you are to fall victim to it.

Moving forward, try these best practices whenever you sit down to explain something in writing.

1) Know your audience’s base subject knowledge.

How well your audience understands your subject should shape the way you approach it.

So, do your research. If their base subject knowledge is high, feel free to skip the fundamentals. If their base knowledge is low, or nonexistent, start from the beginning -- start at thirty thousand feet and parachute down, slowly, gradually.

To figure out your audience’s base knowledge, try creating a detailed target persona. It’s not that hard and it’ll give you the background you need to write in a way people understand and appreciate.

2) Tone down your vocabulary.

Peppering your writing with idioms, jargon, and big, fancy words is like saying: If you don’t understand this, maybe you shouldn’t be reading it. Stop while you’re ahead. Thanks for playing.

That's a nasty vibe, if you ask me. Plus, if people can’t understand you, they’ll inevitably tune out and turn off. And then what will you do? For example, this is:

  • 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 clickthrough rate, and capitalize on what’s working.”
  • Best: “Let’s see how many people opened our emails and do more of what works.”

3) Tell a story.

Before writing existed, people used stories to keep history. For thousands of years, stories helped us spread information. Today, stories remain just as psychologically impactful as they did back then. As Jonathan Gottschall explains in his book, The Storytelling Animal, human beings are natural storytellers. Stories are a fundamental piece of our genome.

We love stories because they help us see the world through different lenses. We love stories so much, in fact, that we naturally inject ourselves into their narratives, hijacking characters’ circumstances, emotions, and learnings.

Of course, stories also maintain an order. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end, which makes it hard for the Curse to sneak its way in, leaving people out of context and confused.

4) Ditch the abstractions.

Leaders often speak in abstractions because their experience helps them visualize broad concepts. For example, we can all imagine a Chief Customer Officer saying something like:

Our mission is to provide callers with the best customer service they’ve ever experienced.”

That’s great and all, but what does it mean? And how does a statement like that differentiate you from the competition? It doesn't. These days, differentiating yourself in a crowded space means getting specific, like this:

Our mission is to answer every phone call to the customer service department within three rings and to resolve non-emergency calls within 6 minutes.”

Be concrete. It's comforting to people.

5) Provide examples.

Unlike abstractions, examples put concepts into perspective.

An example could take the form of a metaphor or a simile. As long as it paints a picture, it's doing its job. In any case, examples make sense of things, using information we already understand to forge connections.

For instance, when my grandma Sofia didn’t understand what a blog was, I explained it to her in terms I knew she’d be familiar with: “It’s like a journal or a magazine,” I said, “but you can only read the articles on the internet.”

6) Use visuals.

About 65% of people are visual learners, meaning they absorb information better and faster when images are used to explain it.

Hence: PowerPoint presentations, infographics, and those quirky, mesmerizing whiteboard videos you’ve seen. These are all examples of compelling visual content being used to engage and educate people from the boardroom to the web page. Incorporating these and other visual components into your messaging is a potent way to appeal to nearly two-thirds of your audience.

7) Get an outside point-of-view.

You write. You edit. You reread, rearrange, reformat. You repeat.

That's writing -- and it can be an intense process, which, sometimes, leaves your message over-processed. In other words, it’s possible to overthink something, twisting it up until you’re the only person who gets it.

A good editor will alert you to this issue. Don’t know any editors? That’s okay. Ask a friend to give your writing a once over. They may not be your target audience but they can still serve as a barometer for comprehension.

You could also try this old copywriting trick.

Final thought.

The Curse of Knowledge is rooted in the fact that you were once in your reader’s shoes, void of the vast knowledge you now possess.

My advice: When you write about your area of expertise, try to channel that less-informed version of yourself. It will make you sympathetic to the challenges your readers are facing because, once upon a time, you were there, too.

Ultimately, if you want to be understood and help people grow, don't tap your song, sing it! Sing it loudly, so that everyone can hear the notes. The above techniques will help you do that.

What tips do you have for overcoming The Curse of Knowledge? Share them in the comments.

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Topics: Writing Skills

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