Suffering From The ‘Curse Of Knowledge’?

Take a dose of story telling, write from your heart, and adopt the inverted pyramid.


Photo Credit: Roxanna Samii



If you had a choice between reading an engineering and hydraulic account of the construction of Three Gorges Dam in China – which is the largest dam in the world – or Arundhyati Roy’s “The cost of living” – which is about the impact of infrastructure projects on people’s lives in the subcontinent, which one would you opt for?

My bet is that if you are not an engineer or hydraulic specialist, you would probably pick up Roy’s book. And this is because Roy’s account is a story about how infrastructures such as dams can positively or negatively impact people’s lives. It’s because while peppered with relevant facts, figures, and historical accounts, it is about real people – it has a plot, it has a hero, a villain, a turning point and a call to action. And this is why it makes it a compelling read.

As development workers, while we excel in writing concept notes, progress reports, case studies, we struggle to unpack the impact of our work in form of compelling stories. This is because we suffer from a chronic disease called the curse of knowledge.

Colin Camerer, George Loewenstein and Martin Weber coined the term “Curse of Knowledge” and described it as the “cardinal sin of finding it hard to imagine that others do not know what you know”. It is when we’re unable to recreate what we know in someone else’s state of mind.

Steve Pinker, Harvard cognitive scientist says, “Anyone who wants to lift the curse of knowledge must first appreciate what a devilish curse it is. Like a drunk who is too impaired to realize that he is too impaired to drive, we do not notice the curse because the curse prevents us from noticing it.”

He then continues to explain, “I think the curse of knowledge is the chief contributor to opaque writing”. “It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that readers haven’t learned their jargon, don’t seem to know the intermediate steps that seem to them to be too obvious to mention, and can’t visualize a scene currently in the writer’s mind’s eye. And so the writer doesn’t bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the concrete details — even when writing for professional peers.”

The good news is that if you are open-minded enough to acknowledge you are suffering from the curse of knowledge, there is a cure for it.

And the cure is pretty straightforward: simplify your “complex reality” by creating a common picture which everyone can relate to. Tell human and impact stories featuring real people. Use metaphors and analogies. Know your audience and make your content relevant to them by catering to what they need and want.

For example, if you are writing for a policy maker, have a strong call to action; if you are writing for the general public, tell a compelling story that touches both their heart and head, a story that is inspiring, raises awareness, has a message of hope and a call to action.

Make your story fun and shareable. Be direct and write your story in a way so that your reader has an “aha” moment.

Below are a few tips on how to go about writing a compelling story. Let’s not forget that a story is different from a report.

  • Use the inverted pyramid paradigm
  • Tell the story from the heart, showing impact of the activity on people’s lives
  • Write with passion
  • Craft catchy titles
  • Use quotes
  • Write short and simple sentences
  • Use headings and subheadings
  • Write maximum 500-800 words
  • Stories are not reports
  • Complement stories with pictures and captions
  • Make sure your message is clear, concise, concrete, correct, coherent and complete.

When you reach the point of sacrificing, without too much grief, your darlings – or your jargon and insider language – that is when you can consider yourself cured of the invasive “curse of knowledge” disease.

If you are amongst the brave ones out there willing to embrace “curse of knowledge rehab” and adopt story telling paradigm while at the same time sacrificing the intrusive darlings – keep track of your progress and share it with the rest of the community.

May the force be with you!!!

Roxanna Samii

Chief Digital Strategy at UN Environment

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