The Curse of Knowledge

Every year I have the honor of attending many conferences. Most of them are focused on humans and technology which are each very complex subjects. And if you are like me, you’ve been to a conference like this. You’ve looked over the conference sessions and found one where the abstract appeared to be within your realm of interest. So you decide to invest an hour of your time to hear what this speaker has to share.

But within the first ten minutes you find yourself checking the program guide and rereading the abstract to make sure you have the right session. For some reason, the speaker is going on about something that seems to be irrelevant or at worst, uninteresting to you. You suspect there is something in the material that does apply, but you can’t figure it out. You give it a few more minutes and it’s not connecting. You wonder if you should ease out and find another option for your hour.

There are two main reasons this could have happened. The first is that the speaker doesn’t know what they are talking about. This happens most often when the deck is the expert and the speaker is the stooge struggling to be as smart as the deck. This is a topic for another time.

The second reason is the speaker really knows the topic, but is struggling as a communicator. From the audience perspective, the difference between the first and second reasons are hard to detect because the results are quite similar.

To combat the first, event coordinators and sponsoring organizations need to better qualify their spokespersons. To combat the second, it could be as simple as understanding and addressing the major source of issue… the curse of knowledge.

In the December 2006 issue of Harvard Business Review Chip Heath discussed this malady.

“In 1990, a Stanford University graduate student in psychology named Elizabeth Newton illustrated the curse of knowledge by studying 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 guess the song.”

“Over the course of Newton’s experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed only three of the songs correctly: a success ratio of 2.5%. But before they guessed, Newton asked the tappers to predict the probability that listeners would guess correctly. They predicted 50%. 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, it is impossible for her to avoid hearing the tune playing along to her taps. Meanwhile, all the listener can hear is a kind of bizarre Morse code. Yet the tappers were flabbergasted by how hard the listeners had to work to pick up the tune.”

“The problem is that once we know something—say, the melody of a song—we find it hard to imagine not knowing it. Our knowledge has ‘cursed’ us. We have difficulty sharing it with others, because we can’t readily re-create their state of mind.”

The HBR article continues to discuss how this affect leadership and I would recommend reading it in its entirety. But for the moment, I’d like to focus on how this affects the way speakers communicate to their audience.

Speakers should know something the audience doesn’t. It’s an insight, a perspective or perhaps observations and facts that can be useful to those in attendance. Being around technologists, I can confirm that we spend a majority of our time focused on specific complex issues. To properly design and address solutions requires a significant depth of understanding in very specific topic areas. Now take that person — that tapper — and put them in front of an audience of listeners who are unfamiliar with the intimate details.

In large audiences this usually plays out by having a majority of the listeners “check out”. Sometimes the disconnect shows itself in the Q&A portion. In smaller groups and meetings, I’ve observed the listeners ask for clarification and the tappers simply tap harder, as if the volume or tone of the same words will provide different results.

An elementary school teacher I know was serving in a rural US Midwest school. She had a 1st grade student, Larry, was not able to grasp the math addition concept of “carrying over” from one column to another. She would instruct him. “Let’s add 16 and 8. Start with 6 + 8 = 14. Write down the 4 and ‘carry over’ the 1. Now 1 + 1 = 2. Write down the 2. The answer is 24.” Blank stare. Larry knew simple addition but there was a disconnect somewhere. She tried a variety of numbers. But it was like tapping a song he didn’t understand.

One day she gave the students some time to work on their homework assignments in class. Larry was seated next to one of his friends who graciously decided to offer his assistance. “Let’s add 16 and 8. Start with 6 + 8 = 14.” Good so far. “Write down the 4 and ‘TOTE OVER’ the 1.” She said it was like a light going on. For Larry, it all clicked into place. He was now able to fly through the assignments. The substitution of the word “tote” instead of “carry” was the key to his understanding. He could hear the song she was tapping.

So, for those with knowledge or insights who have the honor of sharing with an audience, please pay specific attention to your message. Try to put yourself in their position. It’s likely they don’t know what you know. Think about the words you use, the terminology and acronyms you frequently leverage. It’s better to keep things simple and understood than to lose the opportunity to share something important with an audience that wants to understand.

Remember, it’s not what they hear that matters, it’s what they understand.

Make sure you’re not just tapping.

© 2022 Louis Richardson


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