Tell stories

storytelling by Rusty Darbonne
Explainer Tip: Remember the Curse of Knowledge:
[Via Common Craft – Explanations In Plain English –]

One of the books that I read just before creating our first videos was Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath. More than almost any other, this book helped me see new opportunities to present ideas in a unique way. One idea from the book really stands out – it’s The Curse of Knowledge <insert scary music.>

We’ve all experienced it – in talking to a doctor, an engineer or academic, we get lost. Despite their best efforts, they explain a topic using words and examples that don’t make sense to a beginner. These people are suffering from the Curse.

The idea behind the curse of knowledge is that the more we know about something, the harder it is for us to explain it to someone who knows nothing. We have a hard time being able to imagine what it’s like not to know. For example, think about a lawyer who spent his life reading and writing legal documents, talking to lawyers all day every day, etc. When you ask this lawyer about tort reform, you’re likely to get an explanation that confuses you more. This person knows too much to answer your question in a language you understand.

We’re all guilty of having the curse. We all have something in our life that we know very well – perhaps too well to explain easily. The key is know that the curse exists. To be able to recognize the challenge before you. Here’s how:

Consider every word. Sometimes a word that is completely natural to you can doom an explanation. For example, let’s say you’re a financial planner and you sit down with a young couple and they seem to get everything you’re saying. Then you mention “amortization” as if it were any other word. You use it every day and the people around you do too. It may seem that amortization is perfectly normal. But it’s not – their eyes glaze over and the explanation takes a turn for the worst. You have the curse.


What Common Craft does is tell great stories. This is the easiest model for communication between diverse communities that may not have a common language.

Communities tend to develop language, slang and even stories that really only promote communication within the group. Jargon is used to separate those in the know with those who are outsiders. It can be used to tell who is in and who is out.

If an organization want to interact, if it wants to collaborate, it has to destroy jargon, it has to create common stories that permit understanding to take hold.

Most of what we deal with every day is really too complex to easily discuss and evaluate without years of experience and lots of jargon. In fact, few people actually think like that. They create heuristics, rules of thumb, that permit them to deal with complexity.

in many cases, these heuristics can be exemplified by stories and metaphor. When people view their speech as stories, they often make the sort of simplifying changes that are needed for effective communication with those outside the group.

Because stories often are used to communicate very complex ideas but in terms that anyone can understand. Watch any Common Craft video.

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