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The Curse of Knowledge: Or, how to “know your audience”

The Curse of Knowledge: Or, how to “know your audience”

If you’ve followed our blog at all, or even just done some basic research into presentation design tips and tricks, you’ve probably come across the idea that you need to know (and consider) your audience when you create a PowerPoint presentation. But what does that really mean? And why does it matter?

It starts with “the curse of knowledge.” Essentially, the curse of knowledge is the tendency for people to assume that whoever they are speaking to knows the same thing as the speaker does. One famous example of this, detailed in the podcast we linked above, involves one person tapping the rhythm of a song, and then assuming that another person would be able to identify the song. The tapper assumes this because they are hearing the song (in their head) alongside tapping; but the listener only hears the tapping. A key piece of information wasn’t transmitted, because the speaker assumed the listener would have all the same information.

This same thing happens ALL THE TIME with PowerPoints. Speakers assume the audience knows what an acronym means, or the details of product features, or even something as basic as why they are listening to the presentation in the first place. This leads to everything from the small inconveniences of spending extra time explaining certain slides to the big problems of a client just not seeing the value of your brand because they are missing a key piece of information that never made it from your brain to the slide.

Fortunately, there are a couple easy ways to free yourself from the curse of knowledge, and make sure your audience is getting the information they need from your next PowerPoint presentation.

Tip #1: Write it out

This might not seem like a revelation, but the first thing you should do is write your presentation. Include all the things you want to say, all the information you need to convey, and even things you are unsure if you need or not. We’ll edit this later, but for now, just focus on what you know you know.

This is often the most challenging step, so we like to start small and build from there.

For example, you can start with writing out the title for the basic content you want to include on each slide (Overview, Revenue, Outlook, etc) to help organize your thoughts at the highest level. Then you can add in some rough bullet points for each. Finally, go back through and change your descriptive slide titles to more conversational headline-style writing.

By following this process, you can let yourself start with basic concepts and then get more detailed with each revision. This helps to set your content up in a way that's logical and easy to follow.

Tip #2: Change your perspective

If you want to understand what does (and doesn’t) come across clearly in your presentation, the best way is to hear it through fresh ears. Ask someone who isn’t intimately familiar with your topic to listen to your PowerPoint and ask as many questions as they can, and you’ll get a clear insight into the places where clarity is lacking. This is actually the first step we typically take when working with a new client or helping people prep for a big presentation, and it almost always uncovers more issues than either party would have expected.

If you don’t have the time or resources to practice with another person, you can also do this step on your own, though it is a bit more challenging this way. You can tap into your inner kindergartener and play some make believe by imagining you are someone else! Specifically, imagine you are the person sitting across the table (or across the Zoom screen) hearing the presentation for the first time. As you read through each slide, note any jargon or technical language that may be confusing, any areas where you may have shown a plan or outcome without fully explaining how to get there.

If you discover any unclear language or vague wording during your practice session, resist the urge to revise it immediately. Just mark down the places where you think there could be any potential for misunderstandings or miscommunication. Even if you think it’s 99% clear, make note of it anyway.

Another way to get an outside perspective is to test your content with an AI tool like ChatGPT. These tools are great for a lot of things, but in particular they excel at assessing information and giving you decent feedback. You can ask it to give you actionable direction on your content, feedback as though it were different types of audiences, or just new ideas for content to add or ways to spice up your current presentation.

Tip #3: Fill the gaps

Now, you can go back and revise not just the parts that may be unclear, but potentially your narrative as a whole. That’s because you may need to do more than just add some explanation, you may need to revise how you are telling the story in order to best make your message heard. Try to imagine how your audience would use each piece of information, and then reshape it to match what they want (and need) to hear, rather than what is most important to you. Because at the end of the deck, that’s what really matters.

Now is when you can start to think about adding visuals as well. Whether it's photos, icons, or data visualizations, the imagery you use is a key part of the story you are telling your presentation. Make sure that the images are clear, appropriate to the audience, and support the story.

At the end of these three steps, you should be able to see a clear difference between where you started and where you ended. And even if you don’t, you should have a stronger understanding of why (and how) to consider your audience when creating a PowerPoint presentation. If you can start regularly implementing these steps to your workflow, you may find that the curse of knowledge is actually a blessing in disguise.

Update (02/24): we’ve revised this article to add some new tips on best practices for visuals in presentations

Looking for more information about presentation visuals and beyond? Check out our resources for expert advice and tested strategies.

About the author

Kyle Kartz is the Creative Director of Storytelling at VerdanaBold. He is an expert copywriter and strategist, with experience driving major campaigns for global brands in multiple industries. He is passionate about communications, the outdoors, and cooking.



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