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The curse of knowledge


A little while ago my friend Liz introduced me to Dan and Chip Heath's book 'Made to Stick'

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

which is excellent for anyone wanting to learn how to tell a compelling story. I've started using it when I teach people about scenario planning and I've found it invaluable for story telling and a number of different contexts.

One of the things the authors talk about is the curse of knowledge which is an affliction suffered by many people. CEO's trying to communicate to their employee's, marketers talking to their customers and even parents talking to their children all wish that the listeners could understand their message better.

The curse of knowledge means that a person with knowledge in their head has a difficult time communicating it, unless they can really get inside the head of the other person.

Sounds obvious? It is but it is a blind spot which we often don't see. To illustrate the difference between how we think people will understand us and how they really do, Elizabeth Newton used a simple but very effective experiment which you could also try. The results were starting enough to win her a PhD in Psychology.

Tappers and Listeners
What she did was have people tap a tune out on a counter using their fingers. Before she did this, she asked the "Tappers" what percentage of "Listeners" would be able to identify the tune. The "Tappers" guessed that on average 50% of the "Listeners" would guess the tune.

The result - 40%? 30%, no a dismal 2.5%, 1 "Listener" in 40 actually guessed compared to the 1 person in 2 predicted by the "Tappers".

This illustrates how deceptive it is. We all know that when we recount our holiday stories very few people really get the same feelings that we had when we were lying on the beach in the tropics. With the help of a slide show or these days a CD full of digital photographs, we try to give our friends a better understanding of our experience.

Does it work?

If you've been on the other side of the holiday photo show you'll know it doesn't. Pictures and stories are a poor substitute for warm water and sand between our toes.

The lesson for me is, don't assume I know what's going on in another persons head and don't assume that anybody knows what is going on in mine.

Warm regards