6 ways to overcome The Curse of Knowledge and communicate more effectively

Julia Claire Campbell Speaking 12 Comments

Last night I taught a two-hour seminar on LinkedIn at a local community college. I love teaching there – I also teach a longer, more in depth social media course for nonprofits that will hopefully be available again in the fall.

I am not a college professor by nature. I excel at one-on-one coaching and small group, intensive, hands-on trainings.

Giving two-hour PowerPoint presentations is not my favorite way to teach someone how to do something (especially something as personal as social media). It seems impersonal, and it’s difficult to be effective when some of the students are familiar with computers and others can’t open an browser.

While I think this class went well overall, I am sure that I learned more about myself and the topic at hand than the students. (This always happens!)

I suffer from a common affiliation affecting teachers, trainers, coaches and consultants – The Curse of Knowledge. I first heard of The Curse in the fantastic book by Chip Heath & Dan Heath, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.

The Curse of Knowledge is when you know something. It doesn’t really matter what. You know this thing, and you can’t imagine what is like NOT to know it. You don’t remember a time when you didn’t know it, so it’s hard for you to relate to others that do not know it.

I find myself in this predicament often, and I have to catch myself. The Curse of Knowledge rears its ugly head more frequently when I am teaching others how to best use social media to accomplish their goals. Often, I have to back myself up and start over with the very basics, when I assume I can just jump to creating a posting calendar and blog strategy. I get excited about the brand new shiny social media toy, and I assume that everyone else is on the same page and just as enthusiastic as I am!

Since I don’t remember a time when I didn’t use social media every day, I forget that there are many, many people out there that don’t use it at all.

People that don’t (horror!!!) use the internet or even use a computer every day. (Wow, what’s that like?)

The Heath brothers wrote in their book, “The better we get at generating great ideas—new insights and novel solutions—in our field of expertise, the more unnatural it becomes for us to communicate those ideas clearly.” That’s why the benefits of knowledge can also be a curse.

So how to overcome The Curse of Knowledge and communicate effectively? Here are my 10 strategies:

1)     Lose the jargon. Lose the buzzwords and the industry speak. No one understands what you are talking about – except others who do exactly what you do and know what you know, and if that’s the case, then why are you teaching them anything?

2)     Spell out everything. Have you ever been on a conference call or in a lecture where an acronym is used that you don’t know, and it’s never spelled out? Drives me nuts! Explain all acronyms before you use them. In fact, try to explain all the terms that you are using, even if you think they are very elementary. (Imagine if you’d never heard of Twitter and someone started talking about tweeting?)

3)     Do not assume anything about your audience. For me, this means not assuming that they know how to get on the internet, that they know how to login to Facebook or that they know how to turn on a computer. This is not meant to be insulting – I have taught social media classes to complete beginners that know nothing about computers but come the class more enthusiastic willing to learn that others who are tech professionals.

4)     Don’t “dumb down” your presentation. When I say “spell it out” and “don’t assume anything” I don’t mean to dumb down your presentation and make your audience members feel like kindergartners. Start with a baseline and see where your audience is – if they are more advanced, then go from there.

5)     Drop the condescending attitude. Just because I get to spend all day learning about and playing with social media doesn’t mean I am better than anyone else. I don’t know how to build websites; I don’t know how to run a local bakery; I don’t know how sell real estate. I have my set of skills and it may or may not be different from yours. Depending on what you are teaching or explaining, don’t be condescending or patronizing. This person has come to you for help or instruction and they may be embarrassed. Make them feel comfortable. There is nothing wrong with being a social media (or anything else) newbie; it’s our job to help educate people on the topic that we specialize in.

6)     Have patience. Be empathetic and try to put yourself in the audience’s shoes. When I teach people how to use social media, they are often embarrassed about their lack of knowledge (although they needn’t be) and concerned that they are asking “dumb” questions (they never are). Be sensitive to the emotions that your audience is feeling and use patience when answering questions.

Have you come across The Curse of Knowledge in your life? How do you overcome it when communicating with others? Please let me know what you think in the Comments section. Thanks for reading! 

Comments 12

  1. creativityorcrazy

    I just stay in the humble and realize not everyone knows everything, so I try to be very careful not to be condescending and hope others are not with me either.

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  2. excellentwriters

    I find it helps to ask questions. This gives you a chance to see what others know (or don’t). I also try to give people “permission” to not know the answer. Sometimes people will say they understand something that they don’t because they want to appear stupid. As my teachers used to say, “The only dumb questions are the ones you don’t ask.”

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      Julia Claire Campbell

      YES! I completely agree. I am teaching a class tonight called Introduction to Facebook & Twitter, and it is really an introduction. I try to encourage questions and say that no question is too small or insignificant. If I go too fast, I lose people and they get overwhelmed. I love that – “The only dumb questions are the ones that you don’t ask.” I’m going to use it!

  3. excellentwriters

    I ask a lot of questions, which helps me figure out what people know (or don’t know). I also give them “permission” to not understand what I’m talking about. People sometimes don’t want to admit that they don’t get what you are saying because they don’t want to appear stupid. I tell them what my teachers used to tell me: The only dumb questions are the ones you don’t ask.

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  4. Jillian

    This is a great post Julia, thank you for writing/sharing it (I found it on Twitter) 😉 I was able to meet Dan Heath and chat with him about this very topic, it is highly relevant for me too. Thanks for the reminder & for breaking it down.

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      Julia Claire Campbell

      Thanks for reading! I just signed up for your email newsletter!

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