My best friend is an award-winning high school English teacher with a Ph.D. She’s pretty darn smart. But she occasionally calls and asks if I can define some obscure grammatical term.
My answer is usually no, to which she replies, “OK, good.”
You see, she’s not asking me for the answer. She’s asking if I know the answer, because she didn’t know until she looked it up. And if I, a fellow English major and professional writer, don’t know either, then she feels better about her own ignorance.
Everyone has knowledge gaps, regardless of education and even within our own areas of expertise. Sometimes we’re a little sensitive about them. And we’re often not even aware of them until we come across a question we can’t answer. Like the old saying goes, you don’t know what you don’t know.
The bigger problem in content marketing is that we also don’t know what our audiences don’t know. And research shows we’re not great at guessing.
What’s the science behind knowledge gaps? And how can we keep them from wrecking our writing?
Our brains are actually hardwired in a way that makes these gaps inevitable. Yet we tend to assume other people understand what we understand. At the same time, when we don’t know the answer to a question, we tend to think other people do.
This, it turns out, is good for the psyche. But it’s not so good for effective communication.
Image attribution: Skyler Smith
Philip Fernbach—a cognitive scientist, marketing professor at University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business, and co-author of The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone—sums up this conundrum in his article, “We should be asking more stupid questions.” He writes:
The mind is not made to store details. Any computer can regurgitate the contents of hundreds of thousands of books verbatim. What the human mind does so expertly is much more elusive. We are great at extracting abstract principles to allow us to figure how to behave in completely new situations. Forgetting the details is often instrumental to that . . . Ignorance is a feature of the human mind, not a bug.
By failing to understand this, we err in our assessments of what others know and what we should know. The curse of knowledge occurs because we think everyone else understands our little slice of expertise. Conversely, when we don’t know something, we feel like everyone else does, which causes embarrassment. The reality is that few people understand any topic in depth and everyone is ignorant about almost everything. We’d be better off if we dropped the charade.
The “curse of knowledge” to which Fernbach refers is a long-recognized psychological phenomenon. It’s also called mindblindness, egocentrism, and hindsight bias. Whatever you call it, it boils down to this: When you know something, it’s hard to imagine how someone else could not know it.
Steven Pinker—a cognitive neuroscientist, Harvard linguistics professor, and author of The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century—discussed the curse of knowledge at length in his 2015 lecture for the Association for Psychological Science.
To illustrate the curse in action, Pinker referred to a well-known and often-replicated experiment in which a researcher invites a three-year-old child into a room and hands him an M&Ms box. When the kid opens it, he finds pencils instead of candy. The researcher closes the box, puts it back on the table, and tells him that another kid will come into the room and pick up the same box.
Then the researcher asks, “What do you think that kid will expect to find in this box?”
The kid says, “Pencils.”
The researchers asks, “What did you expect to find in the box when you first came into the room?”
The kid says, “Pencils.”
What’s happening here? Pinker explained, “Once the child knows it, he can no longer reconstruct the state of innocence or ignorance before he knew it.”
Pinker said older children and adults outgrow this—kind of. As he put it, “Many studies have shown that adults are liable to a similar curse. We’re apt to attribute our own vocabulary to others. If we know a word, we assume everyone else does. If we know an obscure fact, we tend to assume it’s common knowledge, and particularly with technical skills, we’re cursed by our own expertise.”
This curse, Pinker says, is “the chief contributor to opaque writing.” He explains: “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.”
What does this mean for content marketing? It’s our job to share useful information and tell engaging stories. If we gloss over important details because we assume they’re unnecessary, then we’re not delivering what our audiences want: clear, readable, meaningful content.
There are lots of reasons for knowledge gaps between content marketers and our audiences. What people know tends to be determined by what they read, what matters to them enough to remember, and what they’ve experienced. And in our increasingly diverse society, people have many different experiences.
The most common and obvious knowledge gap is probably the generation gap.
Ten years ago, I was working at a women’s business magazine, and we interviewed then-CEO of Wendy’s, Kerrii Anderson, for our cover story. When we brainstormed cover lines, one writer suggested “Here’s the Beef.” The editor-in-chief and a few other staff members nodded their heads enthusiastically, but I was puzzled.
The writer who pitched the cover line noticed the look on my face and said, “It’s a play on ‘Where’s the Beef?'” That didn’t clear things up for me, so she added, “You know, the old Wendy’s slogan.” Still, I looked at her blank-faced.
She polled the room, and no one born after 1980 knew what she was talking about, which earned us youngsters a few eyerolls from the older women in the room. (These days, I find myself giving the same look to 20-somethings and teenagers when their knowledge gaps make me feel old.)
Geography makes a difference, too. Most adults who live in rural areas or suburbs can’t imagine life without a car, but many adults in large cities don’t have or need driver’s licenses.
Where we live can also affect what we learn growing up. A recent study found that 7 percent of American adults think chocolate milk comes from brown cows. I heard about this study on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” where several experts shared their opinions on why this particular knowledge gap exists. They agreed that some respondents might have been joking, while others are simply very disconnected from where food comes from.
Jean Ragalie-Carr, president of the National Dairy Council, which commissioned the study, explained, “Less than 2 percent of people in America live on a farm now. So people out there have a very high level of interest but a very low level of understanding.”
Of course, you don’t have to live on a farm to know where chocolate milk comes from, but this story further illustrates my point: You really never know what other people don’t know.
Image attribution: Christian Widell
How can content writers overcome the curse of knowledge and ensure readers get all the information they need?
Ask a few people in your target audience to read a draft of your copy and point out anything they don’t fully understand. If your audience is diverse, try to find diverse reviewers.
Whenever possible, write a draft early enough that you can read it again before your deadline. Taking time away from the material often makes it easier for you to spot points that need clarification and references that might not resonate with everyone.
Buzzwords, industry jargon, and acronyms are not universally understood. Content marketers just think they are because we spend a lot of time reading about our areas of expertise—more than many of our readers.
One of the best ways for marketing leaders to publish content that resonates with diverse audiences is to build diverse teams who can help each other identify and avoid knowledge gaps.
Knowledge doesn’t have to be a curse for writers. If we can learn to spot a knowledge gap, we have the opportunity to fill it. It just takes a little help from other readers, a lot of self-awareness, and even more practice.
Featured image attribution: Afroz Nawaf