Beware the Curse of Knowledge

This is the third in a series of blogs to mark National Storytelling Week 2017, focused on the words companies and brands use to tell their stories.

When you learn about a subject, you know more than most people. It’s impossible to unlearn what you’ve learned (though it is, of course, possible to forget). The more you learn about it, the more expert you become. And yet the more you know, the harder you find it to explain to others who don’t know as much as you do. This is called the Curse of Knowledge, and it can have profound effects on how clearly you write about your passion; about your expertise.

In The Sense of Style, one of the best books about writing clearly and eloquently, Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker observes “the more you know, the less clearly you write”. Academics often suffer from the Curse of Knowledge, although some display it as a badge of pride, using shortcuts and jargon as a smokescreen to create an exclusive club with a secret language that only the elite few can understand.

Business writers do it too, particularly – though not exclusively – when they’re writing about technical products or services that are rooted in science. And while science is complicated, explaining the real-world impact of science doesn’t need to be. If your product or service is as good as you claim it is – if it’s going to be helpful or useful to as many people as it possibly could be – you need to talk about it simply and clearly.

Avoiding the Curse of Knowledge comes down to empathy; to understanding that those you’re trying to influence – your target audience – don’t know as much as about the area where you’re expert as you do. Which is why they’re coming to you in the first place – because you’re an expert and because your product or service can take away their pain. They don’t need to, and they certainly don’t want to see your workings or hear your rationale.

Talk like Apple talks. Talk like Virgin talks. Talk like HSBC talks. And avoid the Curse of Knowledge.

Consider the case of Regen SW. They describe themselves thus: “We are an independent not for profit that uses our expertise to work with industry, communities and the public sector to revolutionise the way we generate, supply and use energy.” (Flesch Kincaid reading ease score 26.9 – see yesterday’s blog for more). Not the easiest start, and too much information packed into one sentence. What they actually do (energy supply) doesn’t feature until word 30 of 30. And that’s before they start getting technical with us, and say:

“Domestic biomass growth indicates degression in April. Forecasting expenditure for biomass is over its degression threshold at the end of November 2014 and therefore requires a 10% degression in April. The question is whether we might see the schemes first 20% degression due to the ‘super trigger’ being hit.”           (FK 44.1)

Simon Sinek’s Start with Why is the second most-watched TED Talk of all time. This is partly because he’s such a good speaker, partly because what he says rings so true, and partly because his message is so simply and elegantly delivered. His thesis is that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. Advice he gives six times in 18 minutes, and advice that Zeetta Networks should have considered before they wrote this:

“Zeetta Networks is a spin-out company from the University of Bristol developing and marketing Open Networking solutions for heterogeneous networks based on Software Defined Networking (SDN) and Network Function Virtualisation (NFV) principles. The company’s main product is NetOS®, a Network Operating System which offers a “USB-like”, plug-n-play management of all connected network devices and enables the construction of virtual “network slices” (i.e. separate logically-isolated sub-networks) for the deployment of B2B or B2C services such as Ultra-HD video distribution, City-wide Wi-Fi, Internet of Things (IoT) and M2M deployments, etc.” (FK 22.3)

By introducing difficult concepts more simply and straightforwardly, these companies could have made their products and services very much easier to understand. But by assuming the readers knew almost as much as the authors, these businesses have made themselves less accessible.

In tomorrow’s blog, we’ll look at how to tell stories using data and statistics. At the end of this week, we’ll be publishing a full report on the best and worst of corporate speak entitled “Heroes & Villains”. Register your interest in receiving a copy of the report here.