6 Steps to Overcoming the Curse of Knowledge

by Joe Fontenot

6 Steps to Overcoming the Curse of Knowledge

“What are those keys for, Dad?”

My four-year-old asked me this morning as I was getting dressed. I went through my key ring with him: car, office, front door, bank (my safe deposit box).

“Dad, what does a bank look like?”

“Uhh, well…” How do you describe a bank to a four-year-old? That it’s where I keep my money, but not all of my money, because some is in my wallet. And (I can hear the follow up question): Why don’t you just keep it at our house? Well, it’s not safe. Our house isn’t safe, Dad?

I eventually told him the bank was a building. And it had people in it. That woefully simplistic definition (to me) was exactly what he needed to hear. To him, a bank could have been anything–but I narrowed it down. And now when he sees a bank, he’ll expect it to be a building with people in it.

It occurred to me that businesses face this exact same challenge. When you’re an expert, you’re speaking on the level of a 9 or 10.

But your customers are often consuming information on the level of a 1 or 2. It’s not because they’re dumb. It’s just because they aren’t experts in the same areas you are.

The way we help our customers is by translating what’s in our world (a 9 or 10) into what is digestible in their world (down to a 1 or 2).

In short, this problem is the curse of knowledge: the more we know, the harder it is to translate to those who don’t know.

In his book, The Art of Explanation, Lee LeFever gives 6 steps for overcoming the curse of knowledge:

1. Don’t make assumptions about what people already know

If you cover a critical factor that some of your audience already knows, you’ll be reinforcing (not boring) their knowledge of the subject. If you skip a critical factor (believing they already know it), then you’ve lost them.

2. Use the most basic language possible

There’s a reason news articles are written at an eighth grade level. It’s not because the information is only relevant to eighth graders. It’s because vocabulary shouldn’t be a barrier to getting important concepts to the masses.

Chances are, if you’re an expert, you understand the nuances (and benefit) of your industry’s terminology. But because your audience doesn’t, that language is confusing. You have to ‘translate’ by putting it in words they already know.

3. Zoom out to change your perspective

The lesson here is the same for all of life: Seek to understand first.

This doesn’t mean changing your position. But if you understand another’s first, then you’ll be better equipped to help them move from where they are now, to where they need to be.

4. Forget the details, focus on the big ideas

Details only make sense (and matter) in context of the big ideas.

I don’t care about O-rings or their reaction to cold weather. If that’s your lead, then I’m gone. But I do care that in 1986 the Challenger space shuttle exploded because of o-rings.

(This was the same tactic Richard Feynman used before congress to illustrate this point.)

5. Be willing to trade accuracy for understanding

Accuracy is a nuance. Understanding is the big picture.

It’s okay that my four-year-old son didn’t know what a bank was for–or how it was different from other buildings. It was enough for him to understand that it was a building where people went to work. Once he understand that, the details (which he’ll learn later) will make more sense.

6. Connect the basic ideas to ideas the audience already understands

Doing this takes the mental burden out of learning new things.

X is new.

But X is a lot like Y–which means you already know a lot about X.

(Later you can talk about the differences between X and Y.)

Mastering these six steps will give you an edge against your competition. The truth is, customers don’t buy the best product. They buy what they understand.

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