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Rebecca Wallace

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Curse of Knowledge: the symptoms and how to beat them


Why are experts kings or queens of their subject, but paupers when they explain it? These articles explore i) why experts are cursed by what they know ii) how to beat the Curse of Knowledge symptoms and iii) ways learning professionals can support experts to create videos, podcasts et al that make sense and help people do their jobs better.

At the end of the last article – the first of three - I asked how we can help experts, without learning backgrounds, make themselves understood? So they beat the Curse of Knowledge and make helpful videos, podcasts, microblogs etc.

The Curse of Knowledge is a cognitive phenomenon. We can’t change the way the brain works, but we can take action to overcome its impact.

To do this, experts need to do three things:

  1. Recognise the impact of the Curse of Knowledge (I gave an overview of this in the first article)
  2. Recognise the symptoms (when they spot the danger signs they can remedy them)
  3. Use approaches that combat the symptoms so others understand

So here are three common Curse of Knowledge symptoms. And some ways we can help experts overcome them.

Curse symptom #1 – The hit-and-run information dump

Why it happens

Experts often focus on the wrong thing. 

They start with what they know. Understandable. That is after all what makes them an expert. So when they make videos, podcasts et al, they think the more they share the better.

But the point of sharing know-how is not knowledge for knowledge sake. It’s to help people take action to improve performance. 

“What we mean by knowledge is information in action. Information focused on results.”

Peter Drucker

Symptom #1 cure: Focus on what people need to do

It starts with a mind-set shift.

Experts often value their knowledge for its own sake. But this isn’t about what they know. It’s about supporting others to do things differently. 

And what people need to do sets clear parameters for what experts do and don’t share.

It’s the difference between content that supports people to write great copy and content that helps them write stand-out headlines. The first is an opportunity for experts to share everything they know about writing. The classic route to the information dump.

The second makes anything that doesn’t help write cracking headlines superfluous. No matter how interesting (to them).

So encourage experts to limit their know-how to the specific context. Otherwise it’s confusing. And people can’t act on it.  

Curse symptom #2 – Diving straight into the nitty gritty

Why it happens: experts want to be helpful.  

So they go straight to the meaty stuff. The details at the heart of their expertise that solves problems. 

But this is the fastest route to furrowed brows and glazed eyes. Because we need an overarching theme or idea to hook the details onto.

“Normally, if we don’t know the gist - the meaning - of information we are unlikely to pay attention to its details.”

John Median, 'Brain Rules'

Symptom #2 cure: Show the big picture first

To steer experts away from a detail tsunami use a painting metaphor. 

The big picture matters. Because diving into details like composition and palette is meaningless if you haven’t first seen the whole landscape or portrait.

And zooming in to the minutiae of brush strokes or pixels is mind-numbingly irrelevant.  You need context to make sense of the detail.

So suggest experts kick off with a pithy explanation of why XYZ matters. The point of the skill, product, service, business model, methodology. And the problems it solves.  The context that makes sense of the details that follow.

Experts also omit the big picture because they take it for granted. Which brings us nicely to symptom three.

Curse symptom #3 - Speaking another language: Expertese

The way experts talk together is like another language.

The Heath brothers, authors of ‘Made to Stick’, give it a name - Expertese. It’s at the heart of the Curse of Knowledge. They explain it like this. 

Skilled chess players talk about strategies together. They don’t talk about moving bishops diagonally; they take how each piece moves for granted. In other words, they dispense with the details; they don’t spell out the logic. But everyone knows what they mean.

Why it happens

Experts can communicate in this kind of shorthand because they share the same knowledge and experience.

But people need help connecting the dots to make sense of their know-how. You can’t teach someone chess tactics before they know how the pieces move. 

We need to understand the very things experts take for granted. The things they learnt – and filed away - on the way to becoming an expert. The forehead-slappingly obvious (to them). The stuff that Kathy Sierra, in her book ‘Badass: Making Users Awesome’, calls unrecognised essential knowledge.

This is tricky for experts. Changing how they speak about their subject can feel unnatural. Worse still, patronising or dumbing-down. 

But this is where it all goes wrong. Many experts create videos, podcasts etc as if they’re talking to their peers. And they’ve no idea it sounds like gobbledegook to everyone else.

Here’s one common feature of Expertese and how to deal with it.

Speaking ‘abstract’

Experts often focus on theories and high level ideas. But the problem is we’ve no idea how they work in real life. 

It’s like trying to make sense of a complex machine … with only the blueprint for reference. Experts can read the plan. But the rest of us need help to make it real. We need a translation.

Symptom #3 cure: Examples, examples, examples

As learning professionals, we use examples without thinking. It’s what we intuitively do to build understanding. But experts don’t need to use examples when they’re talking together – at least not in the same way or to the same degree.

So explain the power behind examples. That they bridge the gap between what they take for granted – and so don’t say – and what people need to know. They connect the dots and translate the abstract into real life.  

Next, help them follow these three steps:

  1. Recognise the abstract – ideas, theories and high level statements e.g. ‘Not updating spreadsheets leads to disastrous results’
  2. Anticipate questions, that left unanswered, lead to confusion, such as: ‘What disastrous results?’ ‘What exactly happens?’ 
  3. Include the answers – the ‘bleeding obvious’ (to them) in the content. ‘Missed deadlines, stakeholder complaints, losing clients etc.’

In this article, I’ve suggested experts overcome three Curse of Knowledge symptoms by:

  • Focusing on what people need to do, not what they know
  • Providing context before giving detail
  • Making ideas, theories and abstract statements accessible with examples

These simple techniques transform how experts share what they know. 

And yes, these are ‘bleeding obvious’ (to us). They’re the techniques learning professionals use instinctively. It’s the stuff we learnt as beginners. But they’re the very things experts don’t do.  Because, in their day-to-day conversations with peers, they don’t have to. 

And yes, I know there’s a big, fat elephant in the room …

… experts may not think their communication style is a problem. 

So the third and final article holds up a mirror to their audience. Because when they relate to their struggles to understand, experts see the point of making changes to get it right.

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