The Curse of Knowledge

Authors and editors know too much. And that goes for speakers, teachers and preachers too. They know too much about the subjects they are presenting. Why is that a bad thing? It’s what Chip and Dan Heath, in Made to Stick, call the Curse of Knowledge.


Remember the song tapping game? One person taps out the rhythm to a well-known song and the other person is supposed to guess what it is. The tapper can’t figure out why the listener has such a hard time. To the tapper, the song is obvious. It’s the Curse of Knowledge.

What’s the Curse? When people know something, they can’t remember what it is like to not know it. So what seems obvious to them is not at all clear to potential readers or listeners. Writers and speakers tend to present their material at a higher level than their audience is prepared for. More complexity, more nuance, more detail. The result: the ideas don’t stick.

How do you remove the Curse? Dumbing down is not the answer. Making ideas memorable is. As an example, the Heaths quote the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It’s “the ultimate model of simplicity: a one-sentence statement so profound that an individual could spend a lifetime learning to follow it.”

One key to is finding the core. What is the central idea, the one idea that really matters? The Heaths recount the challenges of getting the Clinton campaign on track in 1992. What could be more complex and have more audiences than a presidential campaign? Policy wonks abounded, not the least of which was Clinton himself. To cut through the complexity, political adviser James Carville famously wrote on the board at their headquarters, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Authors and speakers know all the complexities of their topics, all the audiences they are ambitiously trying to reach, all the great concepts they are trying to impart. Communicating effectively begins by picking one idea and one audience. If you want to fail, go after them all.

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.

One thought on “The Curse of Knowledge”

  1. The economy, stupid? It’s the Third Greatest Awakening, stupid. You know, like the one that beginning in this generation wins the whole earth and everyone in it, and then continues for a total of a thousand generations just so God can crack the humorous remark in Rev.7:9 “a multitude which no one can number” (even God?) to cheer his heart sick children, when they are feeling down. Jesus saved the best for last (Jn.2). It is sort of like the poor woman who had always suffered from not having enough. In her last years some friends took her to see the ocean for the first time. When she saw it, she just stared. Then she said, “This is the first time I ever saw anything where there was more than enough of.” The Bible says where sin did abound, grace superabounds. And when the enemy shall come in as a flood, the Lord shall raise up a counter flood, a greater flood….So why not a flood for 20,000 years and thousands and thousands and even millions of worlds and every soul on them all to fulfill the dim grasp of the strongest supporter of limited atonement, Dr. John Owen in his Death of Death in The Death of Christ, where he speaks of the atonement as being sufficient for the inhabitants of a thousand worlds. His particular redemption is the invitation of a therapeutic paradox; it is a paradoxical intervention, Jesus calling for the sinner to do the impossible. Opposite to Bultmann it is the possible impossibility instead of the impossible possibility or is it both/and?

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