communications strategy

How to free communications from the curse of knowledge

Carolyn McMaster | February 27, 2015

Ting Zhang at the Harvard Business School is doing some wonderful research that looks at the “curse of knowledge”—how being an expert doesn’t necessarily make you a good teacher. Often, it’s just the opposite. What’s great about Zhang’s work is that she looks at ways experts can reverse the curse.

The problem is that knowledge often creates an empathy gap: the expert can’t remember what it was like to be a beginner. In one of Zhang’s studies, she got musicians to play their guitars backward (a right-handed player played left-handed) before teaching, and then compared the evaluations they received with those of teachers who didn’t have that “beginner” experience. In another, she asked a wave of interns to advise the next cohort, half with the aid of journals they had kept of their experiences and half working only from memory. In each case, the groups that were reminded of what it was like to be a beginner received better ratings from their students.

As you might guess (since I’m writing this), there are insights here for communicators. We often see the curse of knowledge in action at cleantech and sustainability-focused companies, which typically have complex concepts to convey. And when subject-matter experts (engineers, for instance) control content, they struggle to translate their knowledge effectively. The result is content that their peers may understand, but that leaves target audiences scratching their heads.

This is where outsiders, such as marketers and professional writers, deliver value: unburdened by the curse of knowledge, they can translate information into plain language and put themselves in the target market’s seat. Like a toddler, they’ll keep asking “Why?” until the concept is clear. The result is not dumbed-down material, but content that is understandable and persuasive.


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