Management Tips

Why does The Curse of Knowledge affect our ability to Communicate?

It’s been widely written, thought and blogged about and you can find opinions galore about the topic going as far back as 2007 when Dan and Chip Heath’s book Made to Stick came out. Go check it out. Google away, I did. I will make it easy for you. Just click here. In fact, don’t bother reading the rest of this post because there is surely a ton of similar, if not better and more scientific, opinion on the subject out there. Actually, why not just read the book. Now, there’s an idea. See ya!

Oh, you’re still here?

Well, ok then, here’s my take on that dastardly curse of knowledge and how it wreaks havoc on our ability to communicate effectively. Watch out! It might be simple and maybe even a little different. Don’t be afraid though, it won’t bite.

The curse of knowledge goes something like this:

You know a lot about something and someone else doesn’t.

You try to explain it to them and they don’t get it. Blank stare.

So you try again and they still don’t get it. Even more confusion.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Are you intelligent enough to articulate your ideas? Hell yeah. Is the recipient intelligent to understand you? Of course. You’re both professionals, you’re educated and you’re both successful business types.

So, what’s up then?

I thought about it a bit and figured when you know something instinctively or have a process in your head that you know so well that it makes it difficult for you to explain it to someone else then you need to break it down into terms that they can understand. That’s essentially it. In terms that someone else can understand. Pretty simple. Now, there are tons of articles on this subject that offer ways to solve this problem. There are lists of actions (try this, try that), examples of words and their counterparts that better define an idea and a lot of fancy language about how the psychological and physiological aspects of human nature play into our ability to communicate the intent of an idea. What? There are even some sites that tease you in with some fancy thoughts and want you to “register” in order to be enlightened because the content is THAT good. Wow!

Well, I’m not going to be able to solve this for you. I’m not even going to try. You’re going to have to do it all by yourself but how about this as an approach?

In terms that someone else can understand.

What does it take to do that? I think you need to be able to understand who you are talking to. For example, if you’re an architect or an interior designer you know a lot about how to put a building together and so do your colleagues. You guys get together and talk about the ins and outs of the design; what works what doesn’t. You know it well and the banter is easy. Literal. It’s no different than the example everyone uses of the lawyer trying to explain tax law to his client. He knows so much about it that he’s handcuffed. Where you run into trouble is when you have to explain your design to your client, don’t you? I can’t see you but you have a surprised look on your face. I know because I did too.

So, what do you do?


How about you get to know your client? Who are they? What do they do? What makes them tick? Ask them to explain their role in the business to you. Ask some questions to get some clarity. Understand them. You know they will fake it when you start explaining the design process to them so it’s better to get an understanding of who they are before you launch in. It can only help. Hey, it can’t hurt right? We are never going to be able to solve the curse of knowledge and there isn’t anyone out there that can tell you they have it licked. We can recognize it though and that’s half the battle. We can strive to be better communicators by really trying to understand the people we are talking to. Practicing on our colleagues and friends to see if we can do it will only help us when we have to write responses to RFP’s, write emails (as we all so often do) and when we write these blog posts where our audience may not be so well known to us.

Ok, how about this?

Go and talk to a kindergarten teacher who spends all her time explaining complicated life lessons to young children. They are likely the closest to resolving the curse of knowledge just because of the nature of what they do. Or if you’re like me and don’t know any kindergarten teachers or have any kids try to explain to a friend how to tie his shoes. Yeah, they know how to do it but it would be fun to see if you can actually explain it. In terms he can understand. Know what I’m saying?

How did I do? Do you get it?


About rdopping

interior design guy who loves other stuff; social media, photography, film, food and anything that is good for the growth of the self


4 thoughts on “Why does The Curse of Knowledge affect our ability to Communicate?

  1. Nice article. One of my favorite quotes is Denzel Washington in “Philadelphia” in which he says repeatedly, “Explain it to me like I’m a 6 year old.” Simplicity is the best clarity. Thanks for sharing.

    Posted by Chadwick Taylor | January 9, 2012, 20:55
    • Ha, you got it!
      Thanks Chadwick. This post was inspired by my boss who suggested that exact same thing to me when I was preparing a presntation recently. “Make sure a 6 year old can understand it”.

      Have fun and thanks for dropping by.

      Posted by rdopping | January 9, 2012, 21:06
  2. I know, it’s like why even bother furthering your continuing education right? But as sage advice is often heard, all it takes is one person to make another understand. The good thing about there being plenty of people on which to practice on, is that we discover each other’s voices. We could read the same book and get different things out of it. One may get it and one may not. It may take me 5 times to read something by 5 different authors before I understand the truth.

    Unfortunately in corporate culture, we talk about integrated design, yet in the same breath are striving for ‘one voice’. Simplicity, yes, is a must. They say that the most simplest forms of writing actually took much sweat and tears to appear so simple. My problem is that I know what I want to communicate, and can only do so visually. If you don’t get it in 30 seconds, then I’ve missed the mark. If I have to communicate it in words, what’s the point of explaining it in a graphic way?

    Great, great post.

    Posted by Karen | January 9, 2012, 22:39
    • Thanks Karen,
      I would tend to agree that visual communication is a heck of a lot more difficult than in writing. Interpretation plays into it much more than when reading written opinion. Your comments show me that even in writing an idea can be interpreted in different ways. Hmmmmmm……..

      Having said that, I think continuing to educate yourself is important in the ability to communicate better. Varied education might be they way forward such as what you can learn through research and writing abou topics that interest you. It’s funny how we trend toward tradition when we consider education when there are so many alternatives these days.

      Thanks for your comments. Always enlightening.

      Posted by rdopping | January 10, 2012, 09:29

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