If you are a nonprofit communicator, odds are you are fighting the Curse of Knowledge in your organization in some way, most likely because your program experts and long-time staff have it.
How Knowledge Can Be a Curse
The “Curse of Knowledge” is when you know so much about a topic that you lose the ability to see the issue from the perspective of those who are less informed. It can lead to a warped perspective about how the public views, or should view, your issues. It can also lead to unrealistic expectations of others and blaming them for not sharing your expertise (“If they only knew, they would . . .”)
You also lose the ability to talk about the topic in clear and concise language. Because you are so well versed in the complexity of the issue, you believe that everyone else needs that same level of detail, expertise, and jargon to understand the issue.
Even good communicators who don’t use jargon or otherwise speak over others’ heads can suffer from the Curse of Knowledge. Have you ever met someone, who after many years of experience, has great instincts or intuition, but is incapable of explaining why they acted a certain way or how they made a decision? That’s the Curse of Knowledge too.
Communications Directors Are Stuck in the Middle
You can see how this sticks a communications director in the middle, trying to be an effective translator in both directions between a nonprofit army of experts on one side and the civilian community of participants, supporters, and influencers on the other.
Staff experts get frustrated with the communications director who seems to want to “dumb everything down” (see My Communications Director is an Idiot). The community gets frustrated with the nonprofit’s communications because they don’t make any sense, are irrelevant, or are simply boring within their own context.
Understanding the Curse of Knowledge and how to manage it effectively is an essential skill if you are going to position your nonprofit or its staff as thought leaders. (By the way, we are presenting a brand new webinar on Thought Leadership for Nonprofits on May 20, 2015).
Managing the Curse of Knowledge
Here are a few tips for communications directors to employ around the office:
Actively encourage questions from all sides within the culture of your organization and within your communications. Lots of questions produce lots of answers, and that usually leads to different ways to talk about an issue. Listen carefully for the word choices people make . . . when those questions are worded in plain and simple ways, how can you match them with plain and simple answers? When too much jargon comes into play, ask “How can you say that in another way?” or “If you couldn’t use the word (insert jargon here), how would you say that?”
Actively encourage storytelling. We all know stories work well — our brains are hardwired for narrative, so stories are easier to remember than facts and figures. Stories are also extremely powerful as examples of complex problems and solutions. Get away from the generic language and explain using a real story about a real person (or even a hypothetical situation with a fictional character).
Find your metaphors. Metaphors are extremely useful, because they let us connect a new idea or foreign concept to something we already understand. “Ahhh, this is like that, which means this is like that too! I get it now.” We have an entire free e-book on how to find and use metaphors in your nonprofit communications.
Use lists of all kinds in your communications. If you can convince your experts of how popular checklists, top ten lists, and step-by-step instructions are (here’s some research), you can work with them on putting their expertise into those formats, which by design, are easier for people to consume.
Bring in an outsider. If you still can’t quite get the point across, bring in someone who has very little (or no) knowledge of the topic and encourage that person to be outspoken about what they don’t understand. It helps if your expert respects this person for other reasons not related to the topic at hand.
How do you combat the Curse of Knowledge in your organization? We’d love to hear your tips, stories and questions!