You could be suffering from “the curse of knowledge” and not even know it.
(There’s irony for you, huh?)
The term “the curse of knowledge” was coined by Chip and Dan Heath in their book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. It occurs when you know something so well you mistakenly assume others know it.
It gets worse with time too. The longer you’ve known something, the harder it becomes to imagine others not knowing it.
But here’s the worst thing about the curse of knowledge: It stops communication dead in its tracks. It causes you to confuse, bore and even alienate your audience.
That’s why marketing professionals must always be on guard against it.
Here’s an example of how it can happen (it’s a domestic scenario, but it applies to professional communication as well):
I enjoy figuring out songs “by ear” on our piano at home. One day my wife, who also plays a bit, asked me to show her how to do it. (She mostly just plays songs from sheet music.)
“Oh, it’s easy,” I said. “Just listen to the bass line; it’s usually playing the root. Then you just have to figure out if the chord is major or minor.”
I droned on for a few seconds after that, happily explaining my method, until I noticed that her brow had furrowed.
“I don’t get it,” she said. “What’s a root?”
The curse of knowledge had struck.
I’d mistakenly assumed we knew the same stuff about music. But, unfortunately, no one had ever taught her any music theory. So when I launched into that “root,” “major” and “minor” bit I lost her. Plus I felt like a schmuck.
Of course, when the communication is just between two people the curse of knowledge is easy to overcome. One person just says, “Hold on, I don’t understand. Could you explain that?”
But when we’re speaking to a mass audience, as we do when we’re marketing a brand or product, we don’t have the benefit of immediate feedback that lets us correct things. We have to be clear the first time. There’s no one to say, “You’re talking over my head” if our message bores, confuses or overwhelms our audience.
Picture a minister addressing his congregation. If he forgets that his flock hasn’t attended seminary, he might start peppering his sermons with obscure biblical references that would sail past most of his listeners. Too much of that and they’ll tune out, fidget or fall asleep. But if he remembers to keep it simple – even his Boss spoke in parables – he keeps them engaged.
If we’re going to engage people with our message, and avoid being stung by the curse of knowledge, we need to do the same.