Reverse the "curse of knowledge" with these 3 brain-tested writing hacks
Updated: 15 hours ago
So, you consider yourself a real Game of Thrones fan, huh? You love the show, do ya; do ya?
WELL PROVE IT: Who is Robert Baratheon’s great-grandfather?
If you’ve spent any time on Twitter, you’ve probably come across these gotcha-holics. They love to test casual fans with totally out-there trivia. One misstep, and they’re fired up to boot you right out of the fandom.
But it isn’t entirely their fault! Whether we’re obsessed with a pop culture phenomenon or knee-deep in an industry or subject matter 24/7, it becomes almost inconceivable that others do not share our same level of understanding.
We get so keenly aware of the details that we forget what it’s like to not have access to that bursting-at-the-seams backpack of knowledge that comes so naturally to us.
Experts, in fact, call this a “curse.” ☠️
What is the curse of knowledge?
Think of something personal. You might try to explain the heavy grief you felt when you lost a family member. Or the elation you felt when you finished your very first marathon. They are almost “had to be there” experiences; it’s hard for us to think of a time before that life-altering moment.
The more immersed we are in a topic or an experience, the harder it can be to “see the forest for the trees.” We start to take what we know for granted, assuming everyone else knows it too.
We swaddle all the details up into a bindle and forget how to unwrap it piece by piece for a newcomer.
If we grew up in a city, we think it’s common street smarts to not fumble with your wallet on the subway platform. We generally assume that most adults know how to drive or cook pasta.
We get so immersed in our own experience that we forget what it’s like to be outside of our bubble. What it’s like to be someone who isn’t talking about our subject matter 24/7/365. It’s almost like our brains build a Lego city out of our knowledge. We see the bridges and the skyscrapers, but forget that we've got to start with the first brick to explain it from scratch.
Why we are prone to cluttering our writing with too much information
The Information Deficit Model suggests that when people don’t “get it,” it’s simply because we haven’t served them enough helpings of information. So as experts, we view this as an invitation to pile on more. And more. And more.
The theory frequently crops up in reference to climate change. If only people had more access to more data, they would truly understand the importance of protecting the planet.
So scientists are shocked that when given an endless buffet of detail, most people still don’t get it.
It’s one of the reasons why knowledge is a curse.
Why readers meet information overload with hostility
Our brain is a very efficient battery.
It knows how much power to churn out for your evening yoga class or hot dinner date, and it knows what’s not worth the energy expenditure.
The minute it senses things are getting tenuous, it sends up red flags: maybe we can do this later, or not at all. (Cue curated list of excuses to cancel blind date).
So when readers or customers are faced with too much information, in some ways, they view experts as a “threat” likely to explain something in an esoteric way that gulps more brainpower than it’s worth.
Too many options, too many features, too many details—sorting through all of this to uncover the “ah-ha!” moment is paralyzing to most brains. When the topic feels “too tough,” or we’re presented with a large set of options and charged to pick one, we freeze—and usually flee.
3 brain-tested writing hacks for overcoming the "curse of knowledge"
According to psychologist Paul J. Silvia, if we “find something comprehensible, [we’ll] find it more interesting.” For instance, it takes effort to learn a new language or start all 20-odd Marvel movies from the top. Things that might gently tickle our fancy are quickly dismissed once confusion eclipses interest.
As a writer, you have to consciously skate this event horizon between interest and confusion—two qualities at the root of writing more understandably.
When we are introduced to something complicated or time-consuming, our immediate reaction is to get the heck out of there—this is far too confusing to grasp. Our brains are already warning us how much energy it will take to suss this one out. So our preference is toodles.
But balanced just so, it can pique our interest instead. Here are three ways you can make what you know more interesting (and less scary!) to read about.
Think of knowledge like a ladder
It’s your job as the writer to ease the climb between a reader’s current level of understanding and what you’re trying to teach or showcase. This story about the early days of the iPhone shows just how important it is to meet customers where they are.
Today, Apple has sold over 2.2 billion iPhones.
But the history of the iPhone starts way before Steve Jobs’ iconic 2007 presentation.
In 1989, a gang of bright engineers at General Magic were already thinking so far beyond the event horizon of what us normies were comfortable with. Their product, the Pocket Crystal, was astonishingly close to the iPhones we tote around today.
But no one was ready for it.
The concept of “always-on” internet didn’t exist.
Digital cameras were in their infancy.
Mobile phones were nowhere near as popular of an accessory as they are now.
Email wasn’t really there either. People either chuckled or shuddered: why on earth would you want to be bothered after work hours, anyway?
Bottom line: people had absolutely zero idea what the hell to do with this thing. But General Magic launched an early model of it anyway in 1994 called Magic Link.
The result? Sheer failure.
The team assumed that their innovative novelty was exciting enough to draw people in. But the product was too far beyond people’s current level of understanding. Not only did they not know how to use it, but they didn’t have enough of a foundation to even reach the knowledge rung required to vaguely “get it.”
So when you’re working with a complicated topic, think of it like a ladder.
What are the “knowledge rungs” that exist between what your customer currently knows, and what you’re trying to explain?
What examples can you use to help them climb from their current position to what you’re hoping to share?
By starting at the correct rung on the knowledge ladder, you can shift a reader’s reaction from totally freaking out to sheer fascination.
Swaddle the unknown in familiarity
New and shocking aren’t guaranteed draws; to capture interest, your writing needs grounding in familiarity.
The mere-exposure effect says that we’re most comfortable with things we’ve seen before—even if we only got a small glimpse. Scientists think it’s an artifact tucked away in this 300,000-year-old operating system called the brain. When we’re exposed to new animals, flowers, and rustling bushes, our brain thinks one thing: this might kill you.
And until we know for sure, the defenses go up. To evaluate the unknown, our brains churn through similar things. Does this animal growl or purr? Is it huge like a school bus or small like a teddy bear? Once we’ve settled on the fact that there’s an adorable kitten rustling that bush, we instantly feel more at ease—and are far more willing to move in for a cuddle.
So by swaddling something new in something more familiar, you can extend a little goodwill towards your reader. This subject isn’t that challenging—maybe I can understand it!
Spotify discovered the value of enrobing a surprise within the sheath of familiarity. Engineers evaluated your music tastes to build completely new, novel playlists packed with songs you were very likely to enjoy. These lists went entirely ignored.
But when Spotify started to sprinkle in some of your known-favorites, playlist popularity skyrocketed. People loved the new tracks! We like to sneak close to the edge and peek over, but we want to be pulled back to safety by something familiar. Only then are we brave enough to approach and explore what the new thing is all about.
Toss in illustrative brain games
Totems are handy little brain games you can use to explain the context behind data. They’re most useful when you need illustrate why a number, measurement, or statistic is noteworthy. Without using a totem, you’re relying exclusively on your reader’s personal life experience to interpret a number’s meaning.
For example, supercomputers are notorious power chuggers. Say you somehow managed to get one of these computing giants to run on 20 watts. Simply stating that your revolutionary design runs on only 20 watts should ignite immediate, uncontrollable wonderment, right?
Well, that depends on your audience!
Not everyone knows that a light bulb sips about 20 watts, a Keurig runs on like 1,000 watts, and a supercomputer, well, 18,000,000 watts. Some people might think 20 watts is a ton; some might think it isn’t much at all. So instead of relying on your reader’s individual mental recall, you can use totems to illuminate just how impressive a number really is.
Charging your reader with a long and lengthy homework assignment detailing the ins and outs of your subject matter will get you one result: listless shrugs, scrunched foreheads, and eyeballs rolled so far back into heads, you’re going to need to supply gurneys.
With this arsenal of handy writing tricks, you can transform your knowledge and expertise into content that will utterly fascinate your reader.
And oh by the way: Robert Baratheon's great-grandfather is Aegon Targaryen V.