Overcoming the curse of knowledge

Once you know something, it’s almost impossible to imagine what it was like not to know it. This makes it difficult when you want to share your knowledge with others – your knowledge has “cursed” you.

You know exactly how it works but find it difficult to explain it to someone who has no understanding of it, because you can’t remember what it felt like not to know. This can make communication a real challenge, but there is a strategy that can help.

The term ‘curse of knowledge’ was first coined in 1990 by a Stanford University graduate named Elizabeth Newton. She created a simple game in which she assigned people to one of two roles: ‘tapper’ or ‘listener’. Each tapper was asked to pick a well-known song, such as Happy Birthday, and tap out the rhythm on a table. The listener’s job was to simply guess the song.

Before they guessed, Newton asked the tappers to predict the probability that listeners would guess correctly. They predicted 50% of the time the listener would guess it right. How could they not, the songs were that simple?

In the experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed only three of the songs correctly: a success ratio of 2.5%. The tappers got their message across one time in 40, but they thought they would get it across one time in two. Why?

When a tapper taps, they are hearing the song in their head. Go ahead and try it for yourself – tap out ‘Happy Birthday’. It’s impossible to avoid hearing the tune in your head. Meanwhile, the listeners can’t hear that tune – all they can hear is a bunch of disconnected taps, like a kind of strange Morse code.

It’s hard to be a tapper. The problem is that tappers have been given knowledge (the song title) that makes it impossible for them to imagine what it’s like to lack that knowledge. When they’re tapping, they can’t imagine what it’s like for the listeners to hear isolated taps rather than a song.

So, what can you do to overcome the curse of knowledge, especially if you work in very specialised areas full of jargon, technical speak and acronyms? Use specific, concrete examples.

Specific, concrete examples (aka stories) work particularly well in overcoming the curse of knowledge, because they allow us to give examples that people ‘create’ and can ‘see’ in their own minds. It takes the abstractions and the jargon and makes them real giving the listener a better chance to understand what you actually mean.

I was once working with a large financial services organisation and they were showing me a clip of their CEO talking about their four focus areas for the year. In the video the CEO said; “We are not easy to do business with” and then moved on to talk about the initiatives underway to rectify this. As I watched all I could think was; “What do you mean – not easy to do business with?  Please give me an example so I can understand”.

Don’t you think an example of how difficult they are to do business with would have really helped viewers understand what they meant as well as making the video much more compelling? Imagine how much more compelling it could have been if that story was also about the human impact on customers?

The CEO knew exactly what they meant by the term “We are not easy to do business with” but I suspect across the organisation there were many people who didn’t.

In Made to Stick, Dan and Chip Heath tell a story about how FedEx used a specific example to bring to life the company’s strategic aim of being the most reliable shipping company in the world.

In New York, a FedEx delivery truck broke down and the replacement van was running late. The driver initially delivered a few packages on foot; but then, despairing of finishing her route on time, she managed to persuade a competitor’s driver to take her to her last few stops.

Stories like this are tangible demonstrations of the company’s strategy and help take abstract notions and make them real, helping  people understand.

So, if you want to make sure you are avoiding the curse of knowledge and reducing the gap between you as the ‘tappers’ and your audience as the ‘listeners’ use concrete and specific examples. When I say “concrete and specific”, I mean focus down on a specific moments and tell stories about these.

An example from a previous life of mine would be, instead of saying the delays in our mortgage process is an example of being “difficult to business with”, tell a story. Maybe:

Barbara Jones, a customer since she was at high school, had shifted out of her house. She had packed all of her furniture into a removal truck, and was now parked outside the house she thought she had just brought being told by us there was a delay in processing her mortgage. She was now facing the prospect of a two day delay, with no where to stay, a furniture truck full of her everything she owned and her cat in a cage on the back seat. All because of the failings of our mortgage process.

Do these two things feel fundamentally different?

Therefore, if you want to reduce the risk of the curse of knowledge. If you want to increase the chances that people understand and remember what you are trying to get across. Use specific, concrete examples. Tell stories. It’s that simple.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s