Get smart: Overcoming the curse of knowledge in thought leadership

Throughout my career, I’ve had the privilege of writing about and ghostwriting for thousands of corporate senior leaders, company founders, management and technology consultants, and other luminaries around the world. Most are working at the top of their games when our paths cross, having honed their skills over decades. Others—some still in their 20s—found early success as passionate young innovators and risk takers.

In thought leadership circles, we typically refer to them as subject matter experts, but I’ve always found that term oddly generic given the vast bodies of knowledge and experience it encapsulates. Also, it’s a tad boring. I’ve interviewed cybersecurity rock stars, health care honchos, supply chain savants, marketing masters, and more than a few AI aces.

Time and again, I’m struck by their breadth and depth of knowledge and willingness to share it—with their peers, those coming up behind them, general audiences, and me. Some are downright humble in ways that surprise me. One Harvard-educated physician-executive couldn’t wait to show his mom that he’d been published in the Wall Street Journal. (We didn’t dwell on the fact that it was sponsored content.)

Almost always, these authors respectfully engage with me to help shape their ideas, recognizing we each have our role to play in this collaborative exercise. My role often entails encouraging authors to strip out material that, while interesting, isn’t essential to the story—or literally does not fit. I’ve counseled many to avoid “stuffing 10 pounds of thought leadership into a two-pound sack,” or that a picture—that is, an exhibit—isn’t worth 1,000 words if it also includes 1,000 words in five-point font.

If reining in an author’s impulse to share all they know on a topic is one important editorial function, another equally important, and related, one is helping them recognize and overcome the curse of knowledge—a cognitive bias that occurs when someone incorrectly assumes others have the background to understand them.

Outside of work, I most frequently encounter the curse of knowledge at the doctor’s office. When I ask about, say, my achy elbow, I’m answered by someone speaking in tongues as I mentally wither before shutting down.

At work, even when the target audience is a group of highly qualified peers who are subject matter experts in their own right, authors cannot assume they all share the same knowledge base and life experiences. On the contrary, they can—and should—assume they do not.

A cynic might say those who suffer the curse of knowledge are just smarty-pants, but, ultimately, it is a blind spot. Having immersed themselves in their area of expertise for so long, they simply cannot register that others have not done the same.

My editorial colleagues and I often act as buffers between authors and audiences, absorbing an onslaught of technical complexity, jargon, dense logic, nested argumentation, or unsubstantiated opinion. We unabashedly acknowledge our ignorance by asking simple questions. What do you mean by that? Can you define this term? Can you express it in different words? Can we say it in plainer English? How would you describe this to your parents? Can you give me a few examples?

Only then—and after reading countless explainers online—do we have what we need to craft a draft that does both its main jobs: respects and reflects the authors’ intent and invites the audience to engage and learn.

This past week, I had a kickoff call with an author team for an article on the implications of “crypto” on financial services. The outline was packed with terms—DeFi, stable coins, Ethereum, dApps, fiat currency—that I had never read before. I’ll immerse myself in the topic in the weeks ahead to get up to speed and write the first draft. But, to my great relief, the authors do not suffer the curse of knowledge. On the contrary, they readily acknowledged this as a technical and challenging topic and patiently answered my many basic questions. Together, we’ll iterate drafts until we have a final article that achieves our objectives. And if we’re lucky, even I’ll understand it.

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