Peter Zinn on the Curse of Knowledge

One of the most common traps speakers fall into is called the curse of knowledge.

They assume that the audience knows the same things they know.

It happens to all of us. We tend to forget the time and energy we put into acquiring the knowledge we have, we forget there was a time when we didn’t have that knowledge. We can no longer even imagine that people don’t have that knowledge.


One way to explain the curse of knowledge is with the tapping experiment:

Take a song that other people will know. Tap the rhythm on the table while you hear the melody in your head. Let the other people guess what it was. Most of the time, they won’t guess it. (Famous exceptions: Happy birthday and We will rock you)

This is the curse of knowledge: the melody is so clear in your head that it’s hard to imagine they won’t get it from the mere taps.

Now tell them the title of the song. If they know the song, and you tap it again, they will now hear the melody in their head as well.

And this is the way out: tell them. Explain. Give examples. Lead them to the melody.

How do you break the curse of knowledge?

So how do you overcome the tendency to speak about things they don’t know in a way they don’t understand?

Three tips:

  1. Don’t assume. Write out your speech and read it over with the mindset of a beginner. Ask the questions: what does this mean? Is it explained when it gets introduced? Better yet – let someone else read it.
  2. Talk to people in your audience before you start your presentation. Gauge their level of knowledge.
  3. Ask your audience during your presentation. Make a habit of asking if they can follow along, know what it is you’re talking about – if not, or when in doubt, explain.

Of course, when preparing your material you always need to make some assumptions. But that’s the material of another blog post.

Post courtesy of Peter Zinn @ [link to source]