Lindsay Bell

The Curse of Knowledge

By: Lindsay Bell | October 2, 2013 | 

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 V3 Marketing, 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.

  • I’m pretty sure this is a plea to get me to stop harassing you about metrics. NOT GOING TO HAPPEN!

    • ginidietrich How many grams make up a stone in weight? And is that 6 hands high?

      • Howie Goldfarb Everyone knows a stone weighs the same as two gallons of milk.

        • ginidietrich Howie Goldfarb Can we bring back the cubit?

        • ginidietrich Howie Goldfarb Depends how big the stone is, doesn’t it….??

      • Howie Goldfarb ginidietrich Lil G IS only about 6 hands high!

  • This is great Lindsay!

    If you ever read up on Taoism the one thing I can’t follow is to stay ignorant. It is true ignorance is bliss as long as you don’t make a decision that is painful based on ignorance. But the reason in Taoism is knowledge causes pain and suffering. Which to a degree is true. I am a masochist what can I say.
    The other important thing is I truly believe that Myers-Briggs is fairly accurate in 2 big measures. First is 75-25. That is the split between one communicator types and another. I am in the 25 so of course 75% of the people can’t understand my humor or how I describe complicated topics. The other is Judger v Perceiver. Judgers have a really hard time changing a viewpoint even when presented irrefutable evidence (think climate change deniers).
    This complicates everything from basic communications to negotiations to project collaborations. And it is nature v nurture. You are wired and all you can do is understand how you are wired and that others are different. I dated a Typologist. Drove me nuts that everyone we met she would Type. But it helps when communicating!

    • Howie Goldfarb I love Myers Briggs but don’t recall the type that is in the 25%. That may be me. About 3 people in 1,000 get my random pop culture references. (“Are you kidding me? Hello! Season 2, episode 9 of Hogan’s Heroes” or “Duh, that’s the title of the B-side song to REM’s third major label single.”)

      • RobBiesenbach Howie Goldfarb Excellent assessment Howie. I am a strong P type as well…to my detriment often.
        I will take it  a little further- do you know my man Howie Gardner? Le SWOON! He’s only next to Vigotsky and My Dad on my “Psychologists I Adore” list. We simply do NOT all learn in the same way. And the crux of it is those that do well in the one narrow “read this and memorize” often end up AS teachers, because the traditional classroom worked for them. I know- I’m a reformed Teacher. BUT- most people have a spectrum of other learning styles that work for them. If someone isn’t understanding, assess your information and overlay a simple comprehension framework, and Voila! Everyone is happier.

      • RobBiesenbach Abstract ‘N’ is 25% vs Sensate ‘S” 75%. Abstracts use a lot of analogies. The Ferrari was as red as the setting sun over the casbah. The S folks are like ‘Just say it is red! Its red! I get it!’ The A folks – It can’t be just red. It has to be a type of red and this red….!
        Plenty for Nuclear Engineers who are both types. I mean I watched Finding Nemo 3 times last weekend and when Dory talks whale I totally though she nailed all of the tips here! Plus it worked. Marlin got a ride from the whale.

        • Howie Goldfarb RobBiesenbach LOVE THE FERRARI ANALOGY!!! People make fun of me all the time because it takes me a half hour to relate an anecdote. But come on!!! You have to know *every detail* – they’re all important – I must set the scene for you, build the tension, impart the feeling, and build towards the final point of the story! You can’t just say “There was a car on its roof on my street at 3:00 am yesterday” – you need to make people FEEL it! 😉

    • Howie Goldfarb I love MB!!! I also love what you wrote here: “You are wired and all you can do is understand how you are wired and that others are different.” – 100% agree Howie. Knowledge does cause pain and suffering, but I think pain and suffering (at a reasonable level) makes you a better/different/changed person. I would take all the pain and suffering I’ve experienced in my life any day over growing up in a cocoon of ‘life is perfect’.

  • Thanks for the reminder Lindsay.

  • The number-phobes and the grammar-phobes are like the Sharks and the Jets…we all just need to empathize more and stop menacing each other with brass knuckles.

    • rosemaryoneill What happens when you love both?

      • ginidietrich rosemaryoneill Gini we all know you must be a freak of nature…

        • rosemaryoneill RUDE! LOL!

        • rosemaryoneill ginidietrich See…the teacher in me says any “numberphobia” can be traced back to a teacher who had The Curse of Knowledge and could not adequately support your learning style. It isn’t you! But I also believe I can teach anyone anything.

        • rosemaryoneill ginidietrich gets calls from all the roller derby leagues they know pound for pound she is invincible…except when on her bike.

        • RebeccaTodd rosemaryoneill ginidietrich What’s weird, is I used to hate numbers. I know you’re being tongue in cheek a bit here, but it’s true that people divide it into “you can do math or you can’t do math” and they shouldn’t.  I had average mathematics teachers when I was younger, and it was only a few years ago that I realized, holy smokes, numbers are FASCINATING. Not that I’m a wizard at them now, but I enjoy and appreciate it as a discipline that gives definition and meaning that’s complementary to art, design, social sciences, communication, etc…

        • RebeccaTodd rosemaryoneill ginidietrich Two words: Catholic. School.

        • JoeCardillo Joe, I’m a geek for numbers – I spent years (long ago) working in a bank! I just can’t understand them that well. I love the results people get using them – really love – but could never get to those results myself. If that makes sense. Proof of my geek-love: I regularly watch head-exploding documentaries like this: “Mathematicians have discovered there are infinitely many infinities, each one infinitely bigger than the last. And if the universe goes on forever, the consequences are even more bizarre. In an infinite universe, there are infinitely many copies of the Earth and infinitely many copies of you. Older than time, bigger than the universe and stranger than fiction. This is the story of infinity.”
          RebeccaTodd rosemaryoneill ginidietrich

      • ginidietrich rosemaryoneill You’re a freak.

    • rosemaryoneill LOVE THAT!!!

  • I saw the headline and I thought, “Poor Lindsay! She’s a misunderstood GENIUS!” Nice way to turn those expectations around.
    I hadn’t heard of the tappers and listeners study. Of course, it perfectly meets all the criteria you laid out—story, emotion, simplicity, etc.—which naturally makes it a perfect lead-in to your points. Very cool. Totally stealing it, too!

    • RobBiesenbach Um…yeah…that tappers and listeners thing…I did that on purpose…  I wrote this post (and it tool me FAR too long) – then texted Gini and said “Ok, the post is done. But I’m not sure it makes ANY sense at all!” – LOL – Delirious with pneumonia. I’m glad you (of all people) liked it. Also, the genius thing made me laugh out loud. Then cough a lot. Thanks for that. 😉

  • Welp, I have something new to read.

    • jasonkonopinski It’s great JSki- combines education and marketing woohoo!

    • jasonkonopinski And it’s an easy read. 🙂

  • NicoleCollida

    Sounds like a really interesting book!  And, sending this to a close friend now because it reminds me of her exactly…………which probably means it should remind me of ME as well.  Thanks!

  • susancellura

    I love the image @lindsaybell! That’s me with high school geometry. 🙂 I’m going to have to read that book. Hope you are feeling better!

    • susancellura Thanks Susan, not quite yet but getting there slowly. 🙂

  • 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!

    • carollinvieira LOL You’ve been trolled! See above – 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. 😀 “

      • carollinvieira

        belllindsay carollinvieira My first Trolling! Booyah!

  • 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.

    • Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes You lost me with “cars”, but got me back again with “dog sleds”.

    • Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes Or Tom Petty. In mukluks. On a dog sled. I would totally understand *anything* if you illustrated thusly.

  • 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!

    • RebeccaTodd You have pneumonia TOO?????

      • belllindsay RebeccaTodd Luckily I just got the pre-plague part. Hank mustn’t have licked mine eyeball sufficiently.

  • 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.

  • Been talking about this a lot lately – you know what’s a great way to help people 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.

    • RobBiesenbach RebeccaTodd Also, when’s the last time you saw a totally amazing presentation? They are rare for a reason. It’s not easy and it takes work.

      • JoeCardillo RobBiesenbach RebeccaTodd Exactly! Vs. when was the last time I sat through a horrible one that wasted my time and left a sour taste in my mouth? Frequently. Especially in SALES. We are the WORST.

        • RebeccaTodd JoeCardillo Really? I wouldn’t expect sales to be the worst. I’d think lawyers or engineers before sales …

        • 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.

      • 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.

        • 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.

      • 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 JoeCardillo RebeccaTodd A hundred hours is a lot.

    • JoeCardillo RobBiesenbach RebeccaTodd I knew you’d weigh in on this Joe! Next time we are together, we are discussing this “communication is education” blog series that is kicking around in my noggin.

      • 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.

        • 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…

    • JoeCardillo RobBiesenbach RebeccaTodd Yes, but, your ‘best’ designers and creatives SHOULD top you at every turn. They’re the best. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. I certainly know – and accept – mine. 🙂

  • 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 🙂

    • 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.

  • 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?

    • 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

  • mlaffs

    ginidietrich belllindsay this is awesome, and nice to see a formal framework around something I learned the hard way 🙂

    • belllindsay

      mlaffs Thanks so much, Maura! 🙂 ginidietrich

  • 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.

  • rdopping

    SFrikkin 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.

    • 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

      • rdopping

        belllindsay only ginidietrich has those problems.

  • 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. 🙂

  • belllindsay

    Alicia_Lw Thanks Alicia!! 😀 SpinSucks

  • belllindsay

    zodot Cheers, Zoe! 🙂

  • belllindsay

    ginidietrich Nope. Maybe.

  • belllindsay

    RobBiesenbach Thanks for the share, Rob! SpinSucks

  • belllindsay

    RebeccaAmyTodd Cheers lady! Hack Cough!

    • 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

    joecardillo Thanks Joe, much appreciated. 🙂 SpinSucks

  • belllindsay

    SandyNMH Thanks for the share Sandy! 🙂 SpinSucks

  • 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?

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

      • belllindsay dbvickery I don’t really consider myself artistic, but I love to read…love music…love consuming “the arts” in many forms. Hack at the guitar (maybe that’s why it doesn’t work), and I sang for awhile.

  • belllindsay

    57Markets Thanks for the share Dean! 🙂 SpinSucks

    • 57Markets

      belllindsay You’re welcome Lindsay! Have great business…

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