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Rebecca Wallace

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Curse of Knowledge: why experts struggle to explain their know-how


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.

There’s plenty of information on platforms and tools to share expertise at scale. But what about the way you communicate? What you actually say or write? 

Perhaps you’ve been on the receiving end of an expert video, micro blog or podcast? Gobbledegook that leaves you feeling stupid. Or maybe just irritated.

Or maybe you’ve worked with experts to create content. And lost the will to live along the way.

What’s going on here? How come experts are kings and queens of their subject, but paupers when it comes to explaining it? 

Because they’re all cursed. Cursed by what they know.

In this article – the first of three - I explain why. And ask how a curious phenomenon of the brain might impact how organisations share know-how; the expert knowledge that helps people take action and improve performance.

In the second article I look at how experts can make themselves clear. And the final piece explores ways they can empathise with their bewildered audience. So they see the point of making changes to get it right.

But first things first. Let’s unpick why the plumber, doctor, academic, butcher, baker and candlestick-maker – in other words all experts - struggle to make themselves understood.

Why experts struggle to make themselves understood

Ever asked a policeman for directions?  And been flummoxed by their willing, smiling, but incomprehensible response?

What’s going on here?

The policeman knows the route. He wants to help. So why can’t he get his message across? Why are you left confused?

The cop knows every bend in the road and landmarks along the way. In his head it’s crystal clear.

But here’s the problem.

He unconsciously assumes everyone has the same mental images. So he leaves out details he takes for granted. And what you hear is muddled and confusing.

But the cop is blissfully unaware.


Welcome to the Curse of Knowledge

“Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it’s like not to know it.  Our knowledge has 'cursed us'. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind.”

Dan and Chip Heath, 'Made to Stick'

So what can we learn from the policeman’s failed directions?

Experts are like the policeman who’s walked the same beat for years. Because experts have assimilated years of knowledge and experience, which they too take for granted.

And like the policeman, when experts talk to novices they omit details that seem blindingly obvious; they miss out steps that spell out the logic. Without realising, experts leave out the information you need most to understand their subject.

No matter how willing, experts can’t always make themselves clear. Because they don’t know what people need to get it.

Maybe you’re thinking:

So experts steeped in their subject and masters of their skill can’t explain it to beginners? Not so smarty pants after all.

Stop right there. Time to delve a bit deeper.

Why experts don’t know what they know

The path from novice to expert is complex.

Tom Gram, a Learning and Performance Consultant, breaks the journey into these stages.

  • Novice
  • Advanced beginner
  • Competent
  • Proficient
  • Expert

So how are novices different from experts? Novices deal in explicit knowledge, facts and information, which is easy to talk about – know-what. But experts deal more in tacit knowledge. The sum total of what they have learnt from experience, formal and informal learning, which is hard to articulate– know-how.

Why is know-how hard to explain?

Because we don’t remember the details of our own learning path from novice to expert.

Here’s an example.

The novice chess player can talk about the board, the rules and how the pieces move - know-what.

On the road to expert the player gains a wealth of knowledge and experience: tactics, managing time, calculating a sequence of moves, visualising a plan and strategy. The sum total of this becomes know-how.  Much of which is now intuitive.

But they’ve forgotten the myriad steps it took to master each skill. For example:

  • The advanced beginner watches videos on repeat -  his insights develop his tactics
  • The competent player reflects on a failed sequence of moves and is forced to tweak it

Each new refinement becomes part of how they play. Over time, they forget the insights and thought processes that changed their game. What they've learnt gets filed away. This essential knowledge is simply assimilated into what they do. So experts may no longer consciously know what they know. The brain knows more than it reveals.

Or as Knowledge Management expert, Dave Snowden, puts it:

“We will always know more than we can say and say more than we can write down”.

What we need from experts to understand – but usually don’t get

So here’s the rub. 

We often need to understand the stuff experts explicitly knew or did at the novice, advanced beginner or competent stage - the know-what – in order to make sense of their know-how. The very thing experts may no longer consciously know they know. Or simply take for granted, and so don’t say.

It can feel like a stand-off which neither side knows how to break.

The Curse of Knowledge is a universal phenomenon of the brain.  It effects everyone – that’s you, me and anyone you’ve ever worked, and will work with, in the future.

“The inability to set aside something we know but that someone else does not know is such a pervasive affliction of the human mind that psychologists keep discovering related versions of it and giving it new names.”

Stephen Pinker, 'The Sense of Style'.

Cognitive science has shed light on why experts struggle to help others understand. So how do we lift this curse and unlock access to know-how? So that people get the information they need to develop and do their jobs better?

The second article in this series explores how experts can make themselves clear, be it via video, podcast, mini blogs, wikis or face to face.  

One Response

  1. Thank you for this. I was
    Thank you for this. I was completely understandable. Made sense. I am and have been trying to figure out how to better convey or convey in any way what is in my head but can’t seem to form the thought properly to get it from my head to coming out of my mouth in the form of something understandable and sensical.
    A kind of I know what I know but don’t know how I know nor how to explain what I know or how I came to the result of such knowledge. It can be very frustrating and wish at times I could have someone just jump into the thought in my head itself. Although that would also be a little intrusive as well. So this is just me trying to learn my own processes and the ability to being able to convey information coherently. Understandable to myself and others upon putting in word form rather than just a bubble or thought sensed in my brain. Ugh. It is hard to explain exactly what mean in reference to what I am trying to explain that I as of yet cannot. But you have given some great insights to consider and work with. I do deeply thank you. I have found a worthy starting point.

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