The Curse of Knowledge and What To Do About It

A mentor of mine recently reached out to me for help with making changes to her new website. Since I’ve had some experience building WordPress sites from templates, and doing basic html, I agreed. “The web development company is conducting a web training to teach me how to modify the site,” she said.

“That’s nice. It shouldn’t be too complicated,” I replied… or so I thought.

As soon as we began the training session, we were asked to download 2 files. One was an Adobe Illustrator file, and the other was a .ste file that we needed to open using Adobe Dreamweaver.

Red Flag #1 – No heads up about non-standard software needed.

While I’m lucky I already have a subscription to the full Adobe Creative Cloud Suite, and hence could download Dreamweaver within a few minutes, my mentor had no idea what Dreamweaver was, let alone that she needed to pay for it!

I opened the Adobe Illustrator file and discovered that it was simply a set of instructional diagrams with information about basic html codes!

Red Flag #2 – Made things more complicated than necessary.

What could easily have been sent as a more common and accessible file format like .jpg or .png, was instead left as a .ai file. The trainer had assumed that we would have Adobe Illustrator, a premium software that requires a monthly subscription, on our computers.

Without checking to see if we were able to follow along without the necessary software, the trainer proceeded to open Dreamweaver, and started demonstrating how to modify the home page. “To add a news article, type <div class=”article-stub”> followed by <h2>…”

Then it dawned upon me that modifying this site requires us to manually type code. I could already imagine the look of confusion and frustration on my mentor’s face.

Red Flag #3 – Expected the client to code!

Oh my gosh. Did the web design company even talk to their client about her knowledge of html and the web before building out the site? How could they assume that their client would be able to code?  Why didn’t they choose a more user-friendly back-end content management system like WordPress?

By the time the training was over, my mentor was too overwhelmed and afraid to make the changes because she was scared she’d accidentally mess up the code. I now do all the website updates for her.

What is the curse of knowledge?

In this example, the web design company was suffering from the curse of knowledge – where you know so much about a topic that you forget what it’s like to not know about it. It destroys your ability to relate to the other party who doesn’t have the same knowledge as you do, and makes it difficult for you to explain it to the novice in an easy-to-understand way.

When you suffer from the curse of knowledge, you assume that others understand you better than they actually do.

What does this mean for you, the change maker?

Let’s say your annual gala dinner is coming up. Do all of your guests, donors, volunteers and clients know about the programs you offer and why they are solving an important challenge in the community?

You, having been immersed in your cause work day in and day out, may have forgotten that your guests aren’t on the ground daily and may not have personal experience with your cause.

You may have sent out your latest fundraising email stating how urgent raising the money would be, stuffed with jargon, and without explanation. And just because you’ve told your audience once, doesn’t mean they’ll still remember it a few days later.

Maybe your organization sells hand-crafted jewelry made by women in poverty. Sure, you know that these are priced a little higher because you’ve chosen eco-friendly materials taken from sustainable sources, and that you also send all the women to school so they can build their way out of poverty through education.

As a potential customer in your store, I may not know that! All I see is overpriced jewelry. Unless you’re telling your story, you’re missing opportunities to connect!

What can you do to overcome the curse of knowledge?

#1 – Put yourself in a newbie’s shoes

Ask yourself, “what questions did I have about this when I first started?” or “how can I break this down into smaller pieces to make this even easier to understand?” Since different people learn in different ways – some visually, some aurally, some by doing – how can you provide the same information in multiple ways?

#2 – Use storytelling

When you evoke emotion in your communications, your message will stick more easily.

One of the best ways to do that is through storytelling. When you are able to paint a scene in the minds of your audience with narratives and vivid descriptions like “she watched enviously as the passerby took a bite out of the big, juicy red apple,” or “Nancy had made up her mind. This was the last time she was going to hide her bruised eye and bloodied nose. It was time to get help.” The more descriptive and specific you can get, the clearer the image you paint in their minds. (i.e. apple vs. big, juicy red apple)

#3 – Give examples

When trying to convey an idea, giving examples will help your audience see from different perspectives, and how it might apply in different situations.

For example, you might make the statement, “$100 will go a long way to helping the children”. While the statement may be true, following up with examples like “That covers school supplies for 5 children for the year,” or “That means Suzie can spend more time in classroom and less time in the fields” will drive your message across even more effectively.

#4 – Test with fresh eyes

When we get too close to our own causes, it’s easy to miss our blind spots. Asking someone who has the same level of exposure to your organization as your audience for their feedback will give you a more accurate idea of how your audience might perceive your message. If you can get several pairs of fresh eyes, even better.

The curse of knowledge can be overcome. It starts with awareness and can be avoided with practice and remaining conscious about it.

Have you experienced the curse of knowledge, or been on the receiving end of it?

Share your story below. I read every one.

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