The Curse of Knowledge

The ever increasing need for business-IT alignment is well documented. But surely the prerequisite for such alignment must be an ability for the two groups to communicate effectively. Unfortunately, technically oriented people continue to bamboozle the business folk with their endless jargon, three letter acronyms (TLAs) and other assorted techno-babble. One possible explanation might be the ‘Curse of Knowledge’.

I recently read Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath. The book is about how to communicate your ideas more effectively, that is, make your message ‘stick’ in the minds of the people you’re communicating with. When technical people speak to business folk the message usually goes in one ear and out the other – the message rarely ‘sticks’.

The authors propose that the reason for this is something they’ve dubbed ‘The Curse of Knowledge’ which states that:

Once we know something we find it impossible to imagine what it was like not to know it… and it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily recreate our listeners’ state of mind.

There’s an interesting experiment that proves this phenomenon exists, devised by Elizabeth Newton. She divided a group of people into two groups “tappers” and “listeners”. The tappers were asked to tap out the rhythm of well known songs (e.g. Happy Birthday) to a listener (by knocking fingers on a table). The listeners had to guess what song was being tapped out. 120 songs were tapped out. The tappers were asked how many songs they thought the listeners would guess. They decided 50%. In actual fact the listeners guessed 3 out of 120 (2.5%). The tappers were dumfounded by the listener’s complete inability to ‘understand’ what was being communicated. The reason for the discrepancy was that the tappers couldn’t imagine what it was like for the listener NOT to have the information they had – the tappers could ‘hear’ the tune in their head as they tapped – but of course the listeners couldn’t hear this – all they heard were the taps in isolation.

If you’re an expert in a given field you know all the ins and outs, all the different perspectives and all the subtle nuances. You know that nothing is black and white. You know that the answer to almost every question is “it depends”. You don’t want to dumb things down for fear of oversimplifying the matter. The end result is that when these experts communicate they want to convey all their knowledge, with perfect accuracy, right up front. But this is a recipe for making sure that the message goes in one ear and out the other.

If you want to know how to overcome the Curse of Knowledge the read the book. It’s an entertaining read and well worth a look!

In the meantime I’ll give away one suggestion.

One way to avoid the Curse of Knowledge is NOT to dumb things down, but rather, give people just enough information to be useful, then a little more, then a little more and so on. For example, if you were explaining how a car engine works to a 10 year old, you might say:

  • The engine mixes air and fuel. The mixture is then ignited and when it explodes it pushes the car along.
  • The mixture is mixed in a metal chamber called a cylinder. Most cars have 4, but some have 6 or 8 and some really high performance cars even have 12.
  • The fuel-air mixture is ignited by a spark created by a spark plug.
  • The exhaust fumes from the ‘explosion’ come out of the exhaust pipe

Individually, none of these points are ‘dumbed down’ – they are all correct at a basic level. It’s just that we build our listener’s knowledge incrementally.


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