What is the Curse of Knowledge? (And 4 ways to reverse it)

Have you ever tried to explain something about your work to someone, only to have them look at you with a blank stare? You try again, putting it a different way… still nothing.

It’s frustrating, right? What seems so simple to you feels impossible to communicate or express clearly.

We’ve all experienced it, and it can be a real challenge to our marketing efforts and to connecting with our clients and customers.

But did you know there’s a name for it? It’s called the Curse of Knowledge.

The Curse of Knowledge makes it hard for experts to remember what it's like to just start learning about something (e.g. blogging or branding or design) -- and it can make marketing and client communication tough. Want to know how to get past that barrier so that you can communicate with your clients and market your creative business more effectively? Click here to read the post now!

The Curse of Knowledge

It sounds like it should be the eighth Harry Potter book (wouldn’t that be nice!) – but instead, the Curse of Knowledge refers to a cognitive bias that keeps you as an expert from understanding the way non-experts look at your specialty.

In an excellent article, Chip and Dan Heath describe it this way:

The problem is that once we know something—say, the melody of a song—we find it hard to imagine not knowing it. Our knowledge has “cursed” us. We have difficulty sharing it with others, because we can’t readily re-create their state of mind.

When you are communicating with someone, you are doing that from a place of what you know about that particular subject. When the person you are talking to doesn’t have the same background or base of information, there’s a disconnect.

The problem is, you’re so used to knowing all about your subject that it can be very hard to remember what it was like not have that familiarity.


Ummm…. Give me an example.

Say you’re a designer. You see the world through the lens of design concepts like hierarchy, symmetry, and colour theory. For you, designing something that looks great feels intuitive, but really it’s based on the wealth of knowledge you’ve built up through both training and experience.

When you’re working with a client, it can be challenging to explain to them why they should make certain design choices and not others. Why?

It’s not because they’re clueless or just don’t get it. It’s just that they don’t see the design the way that you see it. And not only that, your knowledge of design is actually getting in the way of you being able to talk with them about the project in a way that they would understand.


Reverse the curse

So. How do you resolve this and get back to communicating clearly with your clients? Here are a few ideas.



Understanding someone else’s perspective always starts by paying attention to what they’re saying. Make a focused effort to listen to the way that they express frustration or talk about the issues you’re working on with them. A few ways you could do this are:

  • Talk with them on social media, and make a point of following hashtags, groups and communities where these discussions are taking place.
  • Pay attention at the beginning of a project or when they approach you for help: how are they describing what they need and what they’re struggling with?
  • Use surveys. Ask your clients for feedback when a project is over, or send a survey out to your mailing list with a few short questions about what they’re struggling with right now (social media is great for this too – just be sure to ask only one question at a time).

As you listen, pay attention not only to what people say, but how they say it and the kinds of words that they use to describe their experience.


Use your customers’ words

Now that you know what your clients are saying – and the way that they’re saying it – use those exact words in your marketing and content.

For example, say you get a comment in a survey that says, “I’m feeling overwhelmed with the amount of stuff that I need to get done to grow my business. Would love resources to help me streamline and get more organized.”

… you could turn that into a line in a signup form or sales page that says,

“Feeling overwhelmed with the amount of stuff you need to get done to grow your business? Sign up now for resources to help you streamline and get organized today.”

Here’s another example. One of my clients, Ali Cranmer, wrote a lovely testimonial after we worked together. Pay attention to the last line….

… and now see how I used it in a promotional tweet for the Polish & Shine package:

Use your clients’ words in your own sales copy. Your readers will feel like you’re reading their minds… and in a sense, you are!


Use stories to show that you understand

One of the most important things about working with clients is being able to position yourself as an expert to them. That doesn’t mean that you need to be the world’s foremost expert in [insert your niche here], but it does mean that you need to demonstrate that you have enough experience and understanding that you can help them solve their problem.

There are two ways to establish this kind of expertise in the eyes of clients and potential clients: empathy and authority.

Empathy says, “I understand” and often adds, “because I’ve been where you are”.

Authority says, “I know how to help” and follows it up with some evidence of how you’ve solved this problem before.

Stories are a great way to counter the disconnect that the Curse of Knowledge creates so that you can better connect with your audience through empathy and authority.

Telling a story about how you were in the same or similar situation as your client creates empathy, and helps them to see that you really do understand what they’re talking about. It also helps you to go back and better remember (empathy!) what it felt like to be in their shoes.

You can also use other people’s stories. Telling the story of a former client who might have been in a similar situation, and how you helped, reminds your client that they’re not alone and that you have the expertise (authority!) to help them.


Keep it simple

The more knowledge you gain about a certain topic, the more nuanced your understanding gets. It can be tough to remember that for someone who doesn’t have this knowledge, an in-depth discussion of the details is only going to be disorienting and overwhelming.

The solution is to keep it simple. Focus on your customer’s pain points:

  • What is the problem that they really need solved?
  • What are the factors preventing them from solving it?
  • How, in the simplest terms, do you solve that problem?

Keep your client discussions and any content that you create for your blog, website and social media feeds focused on these questions.


Wrapping it up

The Curse of Knowledge can be a challenging barrier to connecting with clients - but it doesn’t have to be.

Listen to your customers, and use their words, not yours, when you talk with them. Tell stories that build connection and trust. And remember to keep the discussion laser-focused on their needs and how you can help them.

Use these strategies consistently, and you’ll banish those blank stares for good.

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