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The Curse of Knowledge in the Proposal World

Being too knowledgeable can actually hurt your proposal.

At first glance that seems wrong: Isn’t knowing more better than knowing less? Does anyone want to hire a web developer who says he doesn’t know how databases work? In most situations these questions have obvious answers, but in writing knowing too much can be a hindrance rather than a help because you’ll assume that the reader has information the reader doesn’t actually have.

You’ll know so much that you’ll assume others know what you do. You’re a wizard. But non-wizards haven’t spent years studying your arcane subject, and they need extra mental scaffolding to understand it. This problem is even worse when you’re on a team of wizards, and you’re surrounded by other technical experts. You’ll begin to subconsciously think that everyone knows what you know (certain fields, like medicine, seem particularly subject to this problem).

We’ve read numerous proposals, provided by clients, that are riddled with internal acronyms, knowledge, and arcane systems. Readers don’t automatically know that your CBO will interface with the BSSG to commit to TCO improvements. Readers won’t automatically know that the HemiSystem is clearly better than the Vaso Company’s product. Readers need to build up to knowledge of the BSSG and HemiSystem.

The vast majority of proposals are read by non-wizards, and even peer-reviewed proposals are often also read by non-peers. “Peer” can be surprisingly vague (this is especially dangerous in writing National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation (NSF), or Small Business Research and Investment (SBIR) proposals). A technical “peer: may still be far enough away from a particular problem area to not know the nuances of the specific proposal topic area. It’s often better to err on more clarifying explanation rather than less.

There is no easy cure for this problem. Awareness helps—hence this post; we’re trying to make you a better writer and improve your life—but isn’t perfect. Feedback helps but also isn’t perfect. Wizards also tend to ignore the value of non-wizard feedback—if you’re not part of the guild, you don’t know enough to contribute—and that can create an echo chamber.

One strategy: give a proposal written by a wizard to an intelligent non-wizard and ask them to read it and mark confusing places, or stop when they stop understanding. If the reader stops midway through the abstract, there’s likely a problem. Another strategy is to have a non-subject area expert write the proposal—that, in essence, is what we do, and what many journalists do. We’re not experts in orthopedic surgery, or construction skills, or medical device development (to name three subjects we’ve worked in) and we don’t pretend to be. But we are experts at organizing information and telling stories. We’re experts in acquiring specialized knowledge and organizing that knowledge. That is itself a distinct skill and it’s one we have.

Even we can be susceptible to the curse of knowledge, however, and we watch for it in our proposals. You should watch for it in yours, and you should read experts at translating specialized knowledge into the public term’s. Physicist Brian Greene is famously good at this, and books like The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory are excellent.

We’re also not the first to notice the curse-of-knowledge problem: Steven Pinker discusses it in The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. Should you meet anyone cursed with knowledge, give them Pinker’s book. But although you can give a book, you can’t force someone to learn. That has to come from within. People who don’t read aren’t committed to knowledge. That’s just the way it is.