cf #50: the curse of knowledge, and more

You are reading contentfolks—a fortnightly blend of sticky notes, big content ideas, and small practical examples. Thank you for being here! ~fio

Hey 👋

Whether your content role is about driving strategy, writing, or managing a team, a key part of the job is sharing information with folks who don’t know what you know.

To communicate effectively, you need to know about and look out for a sneaky and dramatically-named bias, the ‘curse of knowledge’, which happens when you forget that people around you may know less about a given topic than you do.

What does the curse of knowledge look like?

A well-known illustration of the ‘curse of knowledge’ bias comes courtesy of a 1990 study run by a Stanford PhD student, Elizabeth Newton, in which participants were given one of two roles: ‘tapper’ or ‘listener’. Newton asked tappers to pick a famous song and tap out the rhythm on a table so that listeners could guess it:

“Over the course of Newton’s experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed only three of the songs correctly: a success ratio of 2.5%. But before they guessed, Newton asked the tappers to predict the probability that listeners would guess correctly. They predicted 50%.
The tappers got their message across one time in 40, but they thought they would get it across one time in two. Why?

When a tapper taps, it is impossible for her to avoid hearing the tune playing along to her taps. Meanwhile, all the listener can hear is a kind of bizarre Morse code. Yet the tappers were flabbergasted by how hard the listeners had to work to pick up the tune.”1

From the vantage point of your knowledge, you are ‘cursed’ to overestimate your audience’s ability to follow you—that’s because you can’t unlearn what you learned and unknow what you know, but you can’t quite look at the situation from a beginner’s point of view either.

That’s what this curse is all about, and the solution to lift it is simple: if you want to be understood, you have to do the extra work required to bridge the gap.

💡 A practical example 💡

The curse of knowledge manifests itself in our content marketing world a lot—pretty much whenever we forget that our readers and customers don’t have our same background and will struggle to understand the industry terms, technical details, or implied product references we take for granted.

One of the places this happens often is in blog posts, guides, or landing pages where the writer uses ‘and more’ to round up a sentence. Some examples:

  • Slack → Choose when and how you get updates, respond to approvals, connect with teammates and more.

  • Miro → You can choose from ready-to-use maps, diagrams, project tools, Kanbans, activities, and more.

  • Hotjar → Pin-point exactly where your users are getting frustrated or confused with rage clicks, u-turns and more.

  • Gong → Gong captures the most comprehensive set of customer interactions in the industry — from video calls, to phone calls, emails, and more.

Obviously, ‘and more’ is often a convenient shortcut for ‘we have a ton of extra info but not enough space to list it all’—still, folks on these companies’ marketing teams know exactly what each ‘and more’ stands for, but readers and potential customers lack the knowledge and context to even imagine what they could be referring to.

This is one of the most common edit suggestions I have when I go through a draft—and one of the easiest and fastest things to fix as well:

The next time you’re communicating information (or you’re tempted to end a list with ‘and more’), ask yourself: will your audience know what you mean, or do you need to make any adjustments?

Being mindful of the curse is the first step towards lifting it 😉


This paragraph is lifted from this HBR article that doesn’t link to the original study (…lazy!), but I went digging and found the original Stanford .pdf. It makes for an interesting read when you next have ~45 minutes to spare.