Do you suffer from the education curse?

There’s a phenomenon I’ve long observed affecting the ability of people to write clearly and effectively. Economists and psychologists have referred to the phenomenon as the “curse of knowledge.”

In simple terms, it’s what happens when we fail to recognize others don’t know what we do. When we try to communicate with them, we use highly technical language, industry jargon, and obscure abbreviations. Then we wonder why they respond with blank stares.

When I present writing workshops, I often use what happens in elementary school parent-teacher conferences as an example. The teacher smiles and says, “Johnny ranked at the 74th percentile on a norm-referenced summative assessment.” The parents have no idea what this means. Should they take Johnny out for a celebratory ice cream cone? Or should they be humiliated and move to another town?

The teacher has taken many Master’s-level classes. To her, the statement makes perfect sense. It means Johnny scored better than nearly three-quarters of kids his age on a test measuring what was taught. Since she’s surrounded by similarly educated adults who use similar jargon, she assumed the parents would grasp it, too.

Ever stared back in complete confusion when your accountant, attorney, doctor, or that guy in IT shared some important information with you? Professionals like these are among the most afflicted by this curse. You’re not sure whether what they shared was good news or bad, and don’t want to appear to be stupid, so you ask a sideways question, hoping their answer will clarify the meaning.

Those suffering from the curse of knowledge are just as frustrated as the people they’re trying to reach. Their audiences never seem to grasp or follow the counsel they provide and may even become intimidated. How many times have you heard a friend or family member tell you they didn’t understand what their doctor told them to do?

The curse is all too common in the business world, particularly as businesspeople become better-educated. They use jargon and complex terminology instead of more commonly used language. You’ll see it in their word choices. For example, they love the word “utilize,” even though “use” would be a more correct choice better than 95 percent of the time. While people assume that “use” and “utilize” mean the same thing, they don’t.

Why do well-intentioned people wind up with this frustrating curse? Higher education is the most common cause. Earning a college degree typically involves a significant amount of writing; a graduate degree even more. And while you’d assume that would lead to better writing, two things get in the way.

First is the academic world’s insistence on using a formal writing style that’s required nowhere else. Students aren’t rewarded for crafting concise essays and using brevity. Instead, they’re expected to crank out overlong documents packed full of complex constructions and unneeded words so they reach the assigned length. Professors and instructors were taught to write that way, so they expect the same from their students. The students come to believe that’s the appropriate way to write and keep using that style long after graduation.

Second is the students’ lack of confidence in their own intelligence. They believe big words and lengthy sentences will make them appear to be smarter, so they pad their papers with five-syllable monstrosities when shorter, common words would better explain their reasoning. Show me a VP who writes incomprehensible emails, and I’ll show you a freshman who was terrified about failing Composition 101.

If you’re afflicted by this horrible curse, there’s still hope. Instead of writing at your peers’ level, try writing at the audience’s level. Use simple words and replace jargon with more common choices. You won’t give up any of your knowledge, but because people will actually understand what you say for a change, you’ll appear to be a lot smarter.

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