The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose. It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that her readers don’t know what she knows. ...And so she doesn’t bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the necessary detail. …
Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style – The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, Penguin Books, 2014, page 61
In his writing guide, The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker sensitizes us to the curse of knowledge (our failure to consider “what it’s like for someone else not to know something we know”) and its potential to undermine our efforts to communicate clearly and effectively (p. 57).
The curse of knowledge is a cognitive blind spot that wreaks havoc within the legal system, beginning with education and training. For educators and mentors, it may be challenging to recognize details that are obvious to them – to have to revisit the steep learning curve that is associated with entering a profession.
For the practitioner, the curse of knowledge has the potential to undermine solicitor-client relationships if counsel cannot communicate critical information in a meaningful way to a client. The curse of knowledge may also sabotage effective advocacy in the courtroom. During a trial, counsel must never forget that the jury or the judge is hearing the evidence for the first time. The importance of a particular piece of evidence and its connection to counsel’s theory of the case may be less than obvious to someone who has not ruminated over the details of the case for many months.
The curse of knowledge also takes on special significance for judges as they have a duty to assist an accused, and the public, in understanding the reasons for a verdict. A judicial failure to communicate has the potential to undermine the public’s confidence in the administration of justice and to frustrate access to justice initiatives by excluding and alienating laypersons.
Pinker offers several suggestions to assist writers in recognizing and overcoming the curse of knowledge that are applicable to legal professionals in many of their day-to-day activities:
1) Don't overestimate your audience's familiarity with the material
“…Every audience is spread out along a bell curve of sophistication, and inevitably we bore a few at the top while baffling a few at the bottom; the only question is how many there will be of each. The curse of knowledge means that we’re more likely to overestimate the average reader’s familiarity with our little world than to underestimate it. …” (p. 69).
2) Be alert to specialized language and abstract concepts that may impede understanding
The use of jargon, abbreviations, Latin, technical vocabulary, and abstract concepts are often barriers to understanding (pages 63-5). Pinker also suggests that “..when technical terms are unavoidable, why not choose ones that are easy for readers to understand and remember?” (p. 65) For example, in the recent Jordan case from the Supreme Court of Canada, why not simply refer to presumptive time limits as opposed to ceilings, to avoid an unnecessary abstraction.
3) Use concrete examples
“…Readers will also thank a writer for the copious use of for example, as in, and such as, because an explanation without an example is little better than no explanation at all” (p. 65) (emphasis in original).
4) Use a test audience
As Pinker states at page 75, “…show a draft to some people who are similar to our intended audience and find out whether they can follow it. ...Only when we ask these people do we discover that what’s obvious to us isn’t obvious to them. …”.