I've Heard This One Way Too Many Times And So Must Have You, Or, The Curse Of Knowledge

In their book Made To Stick, Chip and Dan Heath talk about a concept called the "Curse of Knowledge." Here's how they explain it:

"In 1990, Elizabeth Newton earned a Ph.D. in psychology at Stanford by studying a simple game in which she assigned people to one of two roles: 'tappers' or 'listeners.' Tappers received a list of twenty-five well-known songs, such as 'Happy Birthday to You' and 'The Star-Spangled Banner.' Each tapper was asked to pick a song and tap out the rhythm to a listener (by knocking on a table). The listener's job was to guess the song, based on the rhythm being tapped...

"...Over the course of Newton's experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed only 2.5 percent of the songs: 3 out of 120.

"But here's what made the result worthy of a dissertation in psychology. Before the listeners guessed the name of the song, Newton asked the tappers to predict the odds that the listeners would guess correctly. They predicted that the odds were 50 percent.

"The tappers go their message across 1 time in 40, but they thought they were getting their message across 1 time in 2. Why?

"When a tapper taps, she is hearing the song in her head....Meanwhile, the listeners can't hear that tune - all they can hear is a bunch of disconnected taps, like a kind of bizarre Morse Code.

"In the experiment, tappers are flabbergasted at how hard the listeners seem to be working to pick up the tune. Isn't the song obvious?

"...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.

I find myself reflecting on this idea that I have been "cursed" with more knowledge than those that I'm trying to communicate ideas to fairly often. Whether I'm leading a team at work or speaking at church, I've rehearsed ideas in my head and spent countless hours working through my thoughts in detail. When it comes time to present them to others, I often forget that they are still at square 1 and haven't been walking through the process for weeks like I have. It's my responsibility to take them through the process to get them to where I am.

It's really easy to present things in a way that I think is clear while at the same time leaving out key details and making assumptions about what my audience already knows. I think I see this most clearly when I use an illustration or "cliché" that I almost decide to leave out because I am so tired of hearing it. I say it simply because it does a good job of making the point, even though I know everyone in the audience must be rolling their eyes at me. Invariably though, someone is impacted by it and tells me that they'd never heard that before, or never thought of things in that way. It's usually those things that seem to affect people the most.

Zak Adams