The curse of knowledge is a psychological bias that makes it impossible for you to imagine not knowing something you already know. For example, it’s difficult for you to empathize with a new driver if you’re an experienced driver.
If you’re writing a speech, the curse of knowledge is likely to affect how simply you explain concepts that you’re talking about. You know a lot about the subject that you are discussing, but your audience may not know as much about it. It’s important to take this into consideration.
Why the curse of knowledge is dangerous
When your audience is learning new concepts, they will take a while to process the things they learn. While they process new information, they are unlikely to pay attention to your speech. It will become a haze in their memory.
Even worse, a particularly bad case of the curse of knowledge could simply leave your audience confused. If you make a joke out of a very obscure reference, most of your audience will not laugh and you will be left in an awkward position. Or if you try to explain something without taking into consideration how little your audience knows, you may see a lot of furrowed eyebrows.
It’s not just a curse of knowledge, sometimes it’s a curse of state of mind. How people interpret words depends on context and their current state of mind. Key and Peele did a great skit based on the idea of two friends in totally different moods interpreting text messages in completely different ways. (Warning: strong language).
So how do you get around these issues?
How to avoid the curse of knowledge in your speech
1. Cut out jargon and speak simply
This is perhaps the most obvious thing you can do to help with the curse of knowledge. Don’t assume that your audience knows technical terms. Even if they “know” the jargon, sometimes they’re not used to using the jargon. So if you throw out too many technical terms in a row, their brain will get stuck trying to process while you go blabbering on.
It’s just like listening to a foreign language that you’re not fluent in. You have to mentally translate everything before you can repeat the sentence back in your head in English. By that time, you’ve lost the speaker.
Instead of saying, “This new paradigm shift will result in elevated levels of positive emotions among employees of said company”, say “Any company that does this will have happier employees”. Even if you have a technical audience, the second is better anyway. Even smart people are human, and appreciate human words.
2. Ask someone who doesn’t know
When you’ve drafted your speech, read it off to someone who isn’t familiar with the topic. Make sure you perform it like you plan to perform your speech in front of a large audience, because your delivery makes a difference in pacing and how easy it is to understand.
Try to choose someone who is as ill-informed on the topic as the average person in your audience. It’s even better if they know less than your audience, because you’re giving yourself an extra challenge.
3. Use concrete words
Most people have a very hard time understanding a concept from a simple abstract explanation. They need to compare it to something, or hear an example. Imagine if you were explaining to someone what a pomelo fruit is. You could either describe it as a large, fleshy, citrus fruit found in many Asian countries, or as a sour fruit that looks like a big green grapefruit. The latter is much easier to visualize. That’s the difference between concrete language and abstract language.
Another form of concrete language that you should use is analogies. Analogies are a great way to explain things in a simple way. Make sure you read my post on relevant analogies.
4. Sleep on it
Have you ever written a to-do list item for yourself, then forgotten what you meant by it later on? When you wrote it down, it seemed clear and specific. But when you read it in a different state of mind, it suddenly seems vague and you can’t recall exactly what you wanted to do.
That’s why you should take breaks as you write your speech. Come back to it after some time and read it over again. Does it still sound as good as it did when you first wrote it? Read it out loud so you don’t just mentally skim it.
The longer time you can give yourself before coming back to it, the better. 24 hours is generally enough, but waiting longer doesn’t hurt.
5. Don’t try to cover too much
Make sure your speech isn’t overloaded with new information. There are limits to how much people can process and learn by listening to a speech. If you cross that line, not only will people be bewildered, but your speech will be very unenjoyable.
Stick to three points, something I’ve written about before!
6. Be aware of the curse
Simply knowing that the curse of knowledge exists will help you immensely. It will make you think harder about everything you write, and you’ll sometimes catch yourself as you write a confusing sentence.
Beware the curse!
For more content like this, subscribe to my email list below.