The curse of knowledge

booksIn their book, Made to Stick, Dan and Chip Heath speak of a major problem with communication. It’s called the ‘Curse of Knowledge’. Once we know something, it becomes difficult to imagine what it was like not to know it. We subconsciously assume our audience know what we know. It makes it harder to share our knowledge effectively with others, because we’re not connecting accurately with our reader or listener’s state of mind.

I was made aware of this recently when I received feedback from my editor on the first few chapters of my book. We are strangers to each other. She had not been reading this blog and knew nothing of my circumstances or background, other than what I’d written in the opening couple of chapters. It must have been like listening to one end of a phone conversation, trying to piece together what the other person was saying. She helped me to see all the assumptions that I’d been making about my audience. I had knowledge, therefore I assumed they did too. This is the curse of knowledge for the communicator.

I had only shown these chapters to two other people. Both of them knew me pretty well. They understood the ‘other side of the phone call’. They could fill in the blanks. One of these people was my father, who knew my circumstances very well. For him my assumptions of knowledge were reasonable, but not for a potential book audience. Changes are needed. Gaps need filling in.

It’s important for preachers and Bible teachers to be aware of the curse of knowledge. The more they study, the more they learn, the more they preach, the more they forget what others don’t know.

How many times have I heard a preacher say things like, ‘You will remember what it was like for the people of God in the wilderness’. The preacher knows what he means and, to be fair, so do most of the people in his congregation. He is referring to the 40 years that Israel spent between being rescued from slavery in Egypt to entering the promised land of Canaan, under the leadership of Moses, as described in the books of Exodus to Deuteronomy.

Imagine someone is at church who has never read or heard of these events. What might they be thinking? Here’s a few possible thoughts…

  • I don’t remember, should I?
  • What was it like? Was it good? Or was it bad?
  • Who were the people of God?
  • When was it?
  • Were these really special religious people?
  • Is he talking about the Tasmanian wilderness or some other one?
  • Surely, wilderness must be a metaphor.
  • I’ve no idea what he’s talking about.
  • There’s an in group here, and I’m not part of it.
  • (Subconscious) Is it worth listening to this guy? I don’t know enough.
  • I wonder what time this finishes?
  • What should I make for dinner?

If we want to engage people, if we want them to connect with our message and stay with us, if we want them to understand and remember what we’re talking about, if we want to see people’s lives transformed, then let’s beware of the curse of knowledge.

One thought on “The curse of knowledge”

  1. This is so true. Only recently I was listening to a sermon which presumed so much of the audience in church setting. I was especially concerned that some–those in greatest need and those young in the faith–did not have a clear understanding what the Gospel actually was or what it meant for them. ‘The Gospel’ was the topic yet it was the least explained thing in the whole sermon. All the peripherals were covered, but the heart of the gospel was to be ‘taken as read’ by the mixed audience. We need to THINK about our audience and make the necessary adjustments to our modus operandi if we are to be effective proclaimers of God’s gospel in a way that both engages people and changes their lives. To be sure, ‘the gospel’ is far more than just an important element and reference point in our preaching and teaching (even the most important). The Gospel is the heart of Father expressed through his anointed Son and what he with his Son did for us. The Gospel in its fullness needs explaining over and over again as we refuse to take our mixed audiences for granted, even if it means some may hear it over and over again.

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