How often when you talk to your peers(especially those who are newly joined ), customers, you catch yourself apologizing just to rephrase a sentence better? This might be because the other party found it difficult to follow what you were saying and you were found guilty for using jargon that is not part of their everyday lives.

If the above sentence strikes a chord with you then you are suffering from the “curse of knowledge” or knowledge curse. If you are still not able to relate to it, then this picture will help you get an idea if you are from the Marvel comic fandom.

Wikipedia defines the “curse of knowledge” as a cognitive bias that occurs when an individual, communicating with other individuals, unknowingly assumes that the others have the background to understand.

I had a similar experience when I was pitching a helpdesk software to a prospect who owns a traditional family-run business. They sell jewelry and were looking for digital adoption by taking part of their business online. By far, this has been one of my worst product pitches to date. While I was introspecting about what could have gone wrong, a couple of questions that came to my mind rattled me. “Was it because I didn’t know what I was pitching during the call?” No, Of course not. “Was it because I didn’t know the customer’s business vertical well?” Maybe?! but I knew how an online e-commerce website would function. “Was it because the customer couldn’t understand?” I was just caught up in the whirlwind of thoughts that would never stop. To finally put an end to this, I went back to the call recording and listened to the 40mins session. For the most part, the customer said “ I am sorry, can you repeat” and I did exactly what I was asked: I repeated what I just said word-by-word, mentally cursing the customer for not putting any effort to understand but what I failed to see was, the audience had different personas and they necessarily needn’t have to be an expert. If the latter were the case, they wouldn’t need me to pitch the product to them in the first place. :)

This whole episode made me more aware of the knowledge curse- cognitive bias. Not just during the product pitches or demonstrations, This also holds when we build something for the customers. The job of product managers or product consultant is to build what the customer wants and would love using, but what if we understood the idea of them wanting a feature differently? What if we think certain fundamentals can be brushed off under the carpet, cos “duh! isn’t is very simple to understand?” Put together there might be so many ways in which we often unconsciously following the curse of knowledge.

This entire episode sort of made me come in terms with many factors that I now carefully consider before going for any call or explaining anything to anyone.

For you to overcome the bias, you first need to acknowledge the elephant in the room and internalize the fact that different people will have different levels of understanding about the same topic.

The very reason why it is called “curse” is that, say once we learn/know something we find it very hard to not know it again. Our knowledge seemed to have “cursed us”. We would have difficulty in communicating with others because we cannot recreate their state of mind with the new information on their mind. So avoid assuming the other party is well equipped to handle whatever jargon you are going to throw at them.

It is also important who you are talking to, and finding ways to gauge their understanding by questioning their fundamentals. It will allow us to have a deeper understanding of the other party so that we can fine-tune the explanation wherever needed.

I am sure we all must have come across this quote by Albert Einstein- “If we cannot explain it to six years old, we haven’t understood it enough.” The beauty of explaining anything lies in the simplicity and ease of language. Again understanding the target audience here and also realizing they might not have the same knowledge as yours should help to stick to succinctly explaining fundamentals.

I often realize the more people I talk with the same concept gets reinforced with more than one meaning and understanding. It doesn’t mean we have to agree and accept every new perspective we get to hear, but it will help us critically understand the discussion better.

Research suggests “When people hear information, they’re likely to remember only 10% of that information three days later. However, if a relevant image is paired with that same information, people retained 65% of the information three days later.” Present your articulation with better visuals to ensure the message is taken home.

To account for the curse of knowledge, you should be aware of its influence, avoid the automatic assumption of shared knowledge, solicit feedback from others, always remember the golden mantra: “How to explain to a six-year-old”, Find and talk to new people to get fresher perspective especially if it is a product feature or idea. Lastly, present them with visual facts so the verbal communication is strengthened.

Product Manager @Microsoft Teams. I like to write about everything in between technologies to human behavior to personal anecdotes. Co-founder @theprodcastt.