How to Overcome This Common Communication Mistake

Understanding the curse of knowledge is key to effective communication.

Common Communication Mistake

Have you ever experienced talking with someone and, about two minutes into the conversation, you realize that you have no idea what they're talking about?

If so, you've been on the receiving end of the "Curse of Knowledge." [1][2]

In a nutshell, the curse of knowledge is the idea that once you know something, it is impossible for you to imagine not knowing it.

This goes for everything from technical expertise, to languages, and everything in-between.

While the curse of knowledge is really just a flaw in your mental wiring, it can completely debilitate your ability to sell and bring in new clients if you aren't aware of it.

That's why you must work to fight the curse of knowledge every single day.

Overcoming the Curse of Knowledge

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I've shared that the curse of knowledge can cause you to feel like an impostor. Now, I am going to talk about four key steps that you can implement today to make sure that your business isn't being held back by the curse of knowledge.

1. Be Aware of the Curse of Knowledge

Problem clients

The first and most important step is to know the curse of knowledge exists.

Once you understand it, you'll start seeing it pop up in both your personal life and your business life.

Spend time making sure that your message is coming across in a way that is easy for people to understand.

Simple Technique: When talking with a client or explaining something complex, try to follow up by adding "Do you know what I'm saying?" or "Does that make sense?" at different times during your explanation. Doing so will help you stay anchored to what your audience does and does not understand.

2. Know Your Audience


As cliché as this advice is in the business world, knowing your audience is absolutely key.

Whenever possible, mimic the language that your audience uses and describe their problems in their own words.

Email can be great for this. You can even talk with potential customers over the phone and/or Skype and ask for their permission to record the call, if possible.

Pro Tip: If you do consulting or coaching, you can offer call transcription as a "freebie" for your clients. After a few months, you'll end up with a huge database of stories and examples that you can pull from and it only costs a few bucks to have someone transcribe it on oDesk. (Make sure that you have permission, of course.)

3. Get Feedback From Someone Less Knowledgeable


Since the curse of knowledge is really just a blind spot in your world view, it helps to borrow someone else's brain. Ask someone to look over or listen in on your sales pitch and ask them for their feedback.

This works especially well if someone in your family doesn't completely understand what you do. Try breaking it down for them in a way that you understand — chances are, if you can explain it to your grandparents, you're off to a good start.

Obvious but Important: In case it isn't obvious, avoid getting someone from within your industry to look over your content. (I'm looking at you, programmers and designers!)

4. Use stories to Illustrate Your Point

Story telling

Story telling is insanely powerful, especially if you have fantastic case studies or "war stories" from having been able to work with other clients. These can be a huge asset and an easy way to communicate exactly what you do without missing out on all of the important details.

In fact, I believe that telling stories about the success that you've had with past clients is one of the best ways for you to establish credibility, especially if you don't fit the stereotype of your industry.

The Power of Stories: In my first business, I faced a lot of issues with credibility because people thought that I was too young to be able to do a good job so I let examples of my past client work do most of the talking. I seriously can't emphasize how useful good client stories can be to your business.

My Curse of Knowledge Story:

Nick and Yarde

Since I'm asking you to share your story, I'll go ahead and share a personal one with you.

A few months ago, I was at the grocery store with Yardena when I handed her the grocery list. I pointed to "OJ" and asked her to go grab "orange juice."

After about five minutes, I'm shopping and I realized that she still hadn't returned so I went looking for her.

When I got to the juice section, she was staring at the orange juice and said, "I can't find the OJ brand."

Now, Yardena is from Spain, so this was totally my fault. Her English is so good that I often forget it is her fourth language, leaving me to assume she knows lots of standard American idioms.

While I wish that the confusion between "OJ" and "orange juice" was the full extent of our encounters with the curse of knowledge, we probably encounter one every week or so. Chances are you probably encounter it just as often, yet you don't even realize it.

The main point to remember about the curse of knowledge is this:

No matter how hard you try, you can never escape the curse of knowledge; you just have to be aware of it. (click to tweet)

Always on your team,

Nick ReeseNick Reese Signature

Reference List:

  1. Camerer, Colin; George Loewenstein & Mark Weber (1989). "The curse of knowledge in economic settings: An experimental analysis". Journal of Political Economy 97: 1232–1254 ^
  2. The Wikipedia entry on the curse of knowledge ^
Published: 2014-01-21