A Cure for the Curse


During a recent team meeting, I watched a common mistake play out before my eyes. It’s a mistake I see others make, but also one that I am guilty of making almost every day.

Here’s the scenario: During a discussion, one person jumped in to argue their point. However, they did so with little explanation, no supporting evidence, and insider jargon that others in the room didn’t understand. The person they were speaking to looked at them with eyes glazed over because they had no background or experience with this particular issue. One person had the context; the other did not. The conversation was completely unproductive. On one hand, I wanted to jump in and “translate” what was going on, but it also reminded me of one of the most critical components of communication.

The marketing world declares that content is king. This may be true, but it’s not the end of it. If content is king, context is key. We must remember that communication isn’t really what’s being said; it’s what’s being heard.

In Chip and Dan Heath’s book Made to Stick, they unpack the Curse of Knowledge—a concept first described in a 1989 issue of The Journal of Political Economy. The Curse of Knowledge is the fact that the more we know about something, the harder it is to communicate it to others. We know the information so well that we assume everyone else has the same context we do, so we struggle to step back, look at it through their point of view, and explain it clearly.

The Curse of Knowledge is a problem that permeates beyond the four walls of our conference room.

In your organization, there are specific things that have become a part of your culture because of an event or experience from years ago, so when you hire someone new, it’s not enough to explain what you do. To communicate clearly, you must move beyond what and explain why. By telling stories and sharing experiences, you help new members of your team understand certain practices, policies, and procedures.

The Curse of Knowledge also applies to sales. Sometimes, the closer we are to a product, the worse we are at selling it. We’ve all walked into the new restaurant where every item on the menu has a nickname. Unless the person serving you takes the time to explain what the items are and how the menu works, you’ll be frustrated before you even try to order. Without context, the content will overwhelm you, but with the proper context, you can have a unique dining experience.

Perhaps one of the most dangerous implications of the Curse of Knowledge is when it makes us less effective at articulating our faith to unbelievers. The further you are along on your faith journey, the harder it is to clearly communicate to those without your level of knowledge. We make assumptions that others have the same experiences that we do, understand our church services, or even our insider language. We must work diligently to overcome these potential stumbling blocks.

The Curse of Knowledge can even follow us home. At the end of a long day, it’s easy to vent our frustrations or tell stories about the day without providing context to our spouses. We make an assumption that someone as close to us as the person we married understands why we’re having these experiences at work, but without providing the necessary background information, our stories can fall on deaf ears.

Think about areas where you suffer from the Curse of Knowledge. Is there an area in your life in which you are so knowledgeable that you have become inept at clearly communicating? Take time to identify these areas, try to put yourself in the position of the listener, and seek to help others understand.

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Today, business means more than just mere products and services. Your organization needs to stand for something. Branding is what you tell the world; leadership is how you make it come true.

No one knows this dynamic better than Kevin Paul Scott.

Companies turn to Kevin for advice on how to up the meaning-quotient in their businesses, so that employees and customers alike champion the business as if it were their own.

Let Kevin come and teach your group about how to build a business and communicate corporate values in a way that resonates with consumers.

His speeches include:
• Building a Business with Meaning
• Leading When the Majority is Wrong
• In Changing Times, Hold to Unchanging Principles
• The War for Talent: Recruiting and Retaining Top Tier Talent
• Essential Exchanges: What You Have to Give Up to Go Up