The Curse of Knowledge concept is a big deal in technology marketing communications. A great example is Elon Musk outlawing the use of acronyms at SpaceX. Reportedly a fire-able offense, Musk coolly stated in his biography that they don’t save time and almost always cause confusion as businesses expand their reach. He admonished that when you’re a rocket scientist too much is at risk to assume people understand the context required to make sense of an acronym.
The same is true for every product or business initiative acronym that you’ve ever concocted. Great for captive internal teams, but how about a channel partner with 20+ vendors on the order card or a new employee learning on the job, alphabet soup.
Lifting the Curse: Two Tips to Improve Your Writing
Acronyms are just one highly-visible example of a broader communications issue. According to Steven Pinker, a renowned neuroscientist specializing in cognition and language, The Curse of Knowledge is the fundamental source of bad business writing. Pinker has a body of work on how our brains process language. His most recent book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, goes in-depth on a variety of writing topics.
Two points from the book that stuck with me can have profound impact on the effectiveness of content marketers, marketing communications professionals, and the executives/organizations who they build narratives and tell stories for:
1. An inability to get your message across is your problem, not your reader’s
The central crux of the Curse of Knowledge is that writers are frequently guilty of making terrible, unconscious assumptions about the contextual knowledge possessed by their audience. In other words, you write something and it makes sense to you because you automatically add the extra context in your head, your reader however cannot. For more, check out Pinker’s Wall Street Journal article, The Source of Bad Writing. If the WSJ presents you with a truncated paywall article, just search “The Source of Bad Writing.”
2. Don’t sweat grammar rules, focus on sounding authentic
We all know that there’s a cultural shift to more informal-tone writing, write as you speak. This is for good reason. Strict grammar rule holdovers will make your writing sound pretentious. And despite what a grammar-Nazi might tell you, there’s often no solid reasoning behind many of the traditional rules that we dutifully learned in high school English. For examples, check out Pinker’s article in The Guardian, 10 ‘grammar rules’ it’s OK to break (sometimes).
The two articles above seem the most pertinent for business writers and marketing communications professionals interested in Pinker’s work. I do recommend his entire book for anyone looking to improve their writing and especially those that strive for expertise. On the whole the book is entertaining. Pinker is a certified genius, so his writing is quite witty, the stories he uses for examples are superb, and the section on what makes beautiful writing is a walk down prose masterpieces. However, there are stretches of dry subject matter on grammar rules that will put you to sleep.
And finally, rest assured acronyms don’t have to be banned, but keep with Associated Press (AP) Style by writing out the full acronym the first time that you use it in each piece of copy – repetition is key to retention in content marketing anyway.
Let the marketing communications and content marketing professionals at Lightspeed help you better connect with, engage, and influence your audience. Outsider communications experts are particularly adept at helping you spot gaps, and the faulty assumptions that propagate the Curse of Knowledge.
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