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Lindsay Bell

The Curse of Knowledge

By: Lindsay Bell | October 2, 2013 | 
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the curse of knowledge

By Lindsay Bell

A few years back, I dropped “Made to Stick” onto my Kobo.

I’ve read it, digitally dog-eared and highlighted pages of it, and definitely won’t delete it.

In the book, authors (and brothers) Dan and Chip Heath talk about the Curse of Knowledge.

The Curse of Knowledge is this: Once you’ve learned something, you can’t unlearn it. More importantly however, you automatically forget what it’s like to NOT know it.

You lose the ability to relate to the guy who doesn’t get it. “Come on!!” you say to yourself, “It’s so EASY!!” You can’t empathize.

Tappers and Listeners

There’s a cool study quoted in the book relating to communication skills. In the study, there were tappers and there were listeners. The tappers had to tap out the tune of a song, on a tabletop, and the listeners had to guess the tune.

The tappers – who, naturally, knew the tune they were tapping – estimated their listeners would guess correctly 50 percent of the time. The actual correct guess rate was closer to three percent.

Not only were the tappers off the charts in their assumptions, something else neat happened. They got seriously annoyed when their listeners couldn’t guess the tune! Of course they did. The tappers had the curse of knowledge.

Next time you’re talking to staff, or giving employees direction on a project, keep the Curse of Knowledge in mind. YOU might know exactly what you mean – but they might need it spelled out clearer for them.

Which brings me to the point of this post. Communicating information.

One Size Does Not Fit All

Many of you know I’m numbers-phobic. I just don’t get them. Numbers and statistics are the spawn of the devil, IMHO. And after I read Make it Stick, I had some insight into the frustration other people would exhibit when I stared slack jawed and drooling at a graph or chart. THEY have the curse of knowledge.

Your board room or auditorium will most likely be populated by other number phobes. But the analogy goes further. When presenting any type of subject matter there will be tappers and listeners. So, if you’re blessed with an analytical mind and a natural facility with statistics and analytics, be kind to your mathematically disinclined pals and present your information in ways that make sense to those of us who can’t do grade five math.

Stats that Stick

So, how do you present your valuable data in a memorable way, while not leave half the room out in the cold? Pulled from “Make it Stick,” here are six things to consider.

Simplicity: Become a master at exclusion. Find the essential core of what you are presenting. Then present that. Make a memorable first statement that is simple yet profound.

Unexpectedness: Violate your audience’s expectations. Which would resonate more viscerally? Numbers, graphs, and charts showing how unhealthy movie popcorn is, or an image of a full day’s fat and sodium intake laid out as hamburgers, steaks, and French fries? Exactly.

Concreteness: Mission statements and strategies are often ambiguous to the point of being meaningless. Use concrete language and data, examples, and images. There’s a reason urban myths are sticky. They resonate because they are filled with concrete images of razor blades and ice-filled bathtubs.

Credibility: When trying to build a case for something, certain people automatically reach for the numerical data to back it up. But what do those numbers really mean? Remember simplicity. Case in point: During the 1980 presidential debate between Carter and Reagan, instead of spouting off stats about the state of the economy, Reagan asked a simple question: “…are we better off today than we were four years ago?”

Emotions: Make people feel something. The popcorn example is a classic. The statement “37 grams of fat” doesn’t elicit emotions. But a fat laden table does. Not only will people truly understand what 37 grams really means, they’ll remember it.

Stories: All of the above principals can be found in a great story. Remember the stunning 1984 ad by Apple? Of course you do. Because it told a compelling story, start to finish. It was simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, and played brilliantly on people’s natural desire to break away from the mundane.

There are always arguments about mathematical literacy. Are some people more predisposed than others? Or is that hogwash?

The brain is a long way away from being fully understood. But either way, the next time you’re getting frustrated by a person’s inability to grasp a concept – any concept – remember the curse of knowledge.

Then take a deep breath and start again.

About Lindsay Bell


Lindsay Bell is the content director at Arment Dietrich, and works in Toronto. A former TV producer, she’s a strong advocate of three minutes or less of video content. She has a cool kid, a patient husband, two annoying cats, and Hank Dawge, a Vizsla/Foxhound/moose hybrid. Ok, maybe not moose.

84 comments
dbvickery
dbvickery

As an engineer, and data architect, I'm definitely math literate. However, I'll take the story-telling any day. And nothing frustrates me more than sitting in a meeting to come up with a Mission Statement. That's when my eyes glaze over, and I can only assume most readers do the same thing.

So what's the point? Are we trying to impress readers with the length of a sentence that can still be ambiguous to the point of worthless?

belllindsay
belllindsay

Thanks for the comments, y'all. I have the same plague that Gini had these last few weeks. I was down for the count yesterday - wanted to apologize for missing these comments! Digging in now. :) 

rdopping
rdopping

Frikkin brilliantly put. As a. Interior designer I wrestle with this concept daily not only with clients but young colleagues. Your tip are excellent examples to overcome the curse. It's amazing how simple it is to understand but so hard to do.One thing that helps us is asking the right questions. To get the essence of a problem we need to pry so we have developed visual tools to play on peoples emotions in order to uncover clues to understanding their needs.Iit's fun. I have to agree that one size is the biggest challenge though. Imagine dragging the essence of a problem out of a banker with images. It doesn't work, hence, know your audience.It's so much fun being a designer even after 24 years.

Fredericadfr
Fredericadfr

Great post Ell Bee!  I just bought a copy of Made to Stick on Amazon based on your post, and was happy to read that the authors wrote it after reading Tipping Point. This is great advice that can be used by both parents and executives.

bradmarley
bradmarley

I read the entire post and all I could think was "What's a Kobo?"

Sort of kidding. This is great advice that can be used by both parents and executives. Personally, I know that i need to be more patient when it comes to explaining ideas to co-workers. Maybe I need to present the ideas to my daughters first. If they get, my colleagues surely will.

p.s. But seriously, what's a Kobo? A Canadian Kindle?

danielghebert
danielghebert

Timely article Lindsay, as I'm working on new web copy! It's something every business struggles with, whether it's showing numbers or simplifying descriptions. Because we're so used to our own jargon and knowledge, we often have a hard time communicating our thoughts to others.

I went through a social psych study when I was in university that showed this "curse of knowledge" phenomenon. The idea was to have a presenter, someone that answers, and an observer (writing down stats). The presenter would come up with 10 "common knowledge" questions to ask. He'd then ask the questions, and the person answering would simply answer. The presenter would let them know if they're right or wrong, and the observer would take not. Before asking the questions, the presenter would estimate how many questions the person would get right, and the observer would do the same.

Turns out, the presenter always over-estimates how many questions the person will get right, because their idea of Common Knowledge is only really common to them.

It was an interesting study, and relates back to your term of "curse of knowledge." Back to thinking now, and how I can apply this to our new web copy :)

JoeCardillo
JoeCardillo

Been talking about this a lot lately - you know what's a great way to help with the Curse of Knowledge, making yourself create and give presentations. 

People like @RobBiesenbach and @RebeccaTodd are wizards in part because they've done the concise, elegant story + data that matters thing over and over again. I had to eat crow when I started running webinars a couple of months ago.... I realized our best designers / creatives do things with 10 slides I couldn't do in 30. 

BethMosher
BethMosher

Jeez. This makes me harken back to last week's display of worst mothering ever when I couldn't understand why my poor second grader couldn't figure out her clock math problem. "If Janie started her work at 4:20..." Gifted with the curse of knowledge, I became short on patience real quick. Great post...applicable to so many facets of life. 


RebeccaTodd
RebeccaTodd

Great post Ell Bee! Love that book as it sees communication as I do- it's education! One of the Heaths is a teacher, so a lot of what they say is rooted in educational theories that are classroom tested. The Curse of Knowledge is a hard one to circumvent. A teaching saying that comes to mind frequently is "we can all learn, but not in the same way, and not on the same day." I keep that in mind and I never feel frustrated when people do not "get" what I am presenting- it means I have to draw on my teaching tricks and hit those other multiple intelligence to help my message be understood. As an educator, the burden of being understood is on the speaker/teacher, not on the listener/student. Oh and thanks for the Pneumonia. What a lovely parting gift! 

Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes
Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes

I try to relate everything to cars. Most people I have encountered know something about cars so when I tie/compare/relate things to them it usually helps make things clear, unless I am talking to Canadians and then we use the dog sled and polar bear analogy system.

I liked Made To Stick it was interesting.

Latest blog post: Protected: Cybersandbox

carollinvieira
carollinvieira

I just bought a copy of Made to Stick on Amazon based on your post, and was happy to read that the authors wrote it after reading Tipping Point.  It figures that Malcolm Gladwell had a hand in inspiring this book!

susancellura
susancellura

I love the image Lindsay! That's me with high school geometry. :) I'm going to have to read that book. Hope you are feeling better!

belllindsay
belllindsay

@dbvickery You must be one of the 'left/right' brain people. Both sides working equally well. I'm jealous. 

RebeccaAmyTodd
RebeccaAmyTodd

@belllindsay I've long loved that book. And use that saying frequently. If you're lucky, I'll let you read my highlights and thus my soul.

belllindsay
belllindsay

@rdopping Hey Ralph, thanks! Yes, knowing your audience is a KEY point. But even a banker has certain 'visual triggers' - maybe a hot cottage in the Muskokas, or 'the cost of sending your kids to private school'. LOL 

belllindsay
belllindsay

@bradmarley Sheeeesh. :) Yes, our Kobo is your Kindle. And I love the idea of presenting to your daughters first! It's all about breaking it down to the simplest version, and using visual cues where appropriate. Imagine how smart your kids will be in ten years, too!? LOL 

belllindsay
belllindsay

@danielghebert That's fantastic, Daniel, I hope it helps with your web copy. :) "Common knowledge, common only to them" - I love that. I think I would really enjoy a social psych course. I'm a bit of a geek that way. 

belllindsay
belllindsay

@carollinvieira LOL You've been trolled! See above Fredericadfr - stole your comment. And here was my response! LOL "Parents....great idea!!! I love Malcolm Gladwell - he's got a new one out, just released I think. Glad you picked up the book. :D "

JoeCardillo
JoeCardillo

@RebeccaTodd @JoeCardillo @RobBiesenbach Totally. It's huge. That's part of why I like talking to people about these things - I'll be the first to admit the world is littered with awful infographics and powerpoints. But it doesn't have to be that way. 

RobBiesenbach
RobBiesenbach

@JoeCardillo @RebeccaTodd Regarding the work it takes. Nancy Duarte, who is a storytelling and presentation master, recommends 100 (one HUNDRED) hours of prep time for a one-hour presentation, dividing evenly between content development, visuals and practice.

I think you can extend this further and say a great presentation is decades in the making -- accumulating knowledge, forming your thoughts, collecting and honing stories, developing a point of view, etc.

RobBiesenbach
RobBiesenbach

@JoeCardillo @RebeccaTodd Thanks, Joe! I agree completely that a presentation helps you focus your ideas. It gives you a whole different way of looking at and framing things. I've read about a number of authors who, after recording the audiobook version, went back and made changes to the text of the book. I always learn something new when I put a communications piece into a different format.

RebeccaTodd
RebeccaTodd

@JoeCardillo @RebeccaTodd @RobBiesenbach I've powered nary a single point in my career, and I see it as a mark of great pride. I LOATHE sitting through a "deck" and assume everyone else does, too. Then, layer on that I KNOW retention for a content dump/lecture is about 10%...what is the point? HAH pun intended... 

belllindsay
belllindsay

@RobBiesenbach @JoeCardillo @RebeccaTodd That is so interesting. I always advise people (when self-editing a piece) to read it out loud. Harder to do in book form - but so interesting that once they do - in doing the audiobook - they notice areas to be improved. 

RebeccaTodd
RebeccaTodd

@RobBiesenbach @JoeCardillo Quite possibly. I have to sit through a lot of sales presentations, so it's what I know. I guess I also struggle with that whole notion of selling- "because I want your money, I am going to waste your time with a presentation that only matters to ME!"- so it is what jumped to mind. 

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