Do You Suffer From The Curse Of Knowledge?
by Andrea Pacini —
There is a famous saying that ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’. It warns against those who know something about a subject but not quite enough.
We should apply the same caution to those business owners and leaders who pitch their presentations above the audience’s heads. They forget how much they know about a subject and aim too high.
In Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, one of the best books I’ve ever read, they introduce the concept of the curse of knowledge. It’s such a good phrase. In the book they talk about our inability to take our minds back to a time before we accumulated knowledge.
Once you become an experienced business leader or entrepreneur you will have acquired expertise in your field. The problem is that you become so close to your chosen subject area it’s easy to lose sight of other people’s level of knowledge.
This can lead to a situation where we think what we’re communicating is simple, clear and engaging—but the audience finds it quite the opposite.
The curse of knowledge is the number one problem in communication.
Too much knowledge
Cast your mind back to when you were a student at school or university. There was always a teacher or lecturer with a superb grasp of their subject who wasn’t very good at explaining it to the class. They were so deeply immersed in their specialist area they had lost perspective on how to teach it.
What was the problem there? The curse of knowledge.
In Made to Stick, the authors cite a Stanford University study known as Tappers and Listeners. In 1990, psychology student Elizabeth Newton asked a series of people to tap out rhythms to famous songs on a table. She invited another set of people to guess the songs.
Before the experiment started, the ‘tappers’ estimated that the ‘listeners’ would correctly guess the tunes 50 percent of the time. In fact, they identified the songs correctly just 2.5 percent of the time.
Why was that? The tappers had the songs in their head all the time and couldn’t understand how the listeners couldn’t identify them. But what the listeners heard might just as well have been Morse code.
As Chip and Dan Heath explain, once we know something, we find it hard to imagine not knowing it. That’s how it was for the tappers. They define it as the knowledge ‘cursing’ us. Even though we need to put ourselves in the shoes of someone without our knowledge, unless we make a conscious effort, we don’t even realise we have that extra information.
The same thing can happen when we’re faced with presenting an idea. We are in danger of being tappers who assume the audience will be able to recognise the tune. This is especially true when the subject matter is complex or technical.
Knowledge is a common curse
Once you’ve become familiar with the concept of the curse of knowledge you start to recognise it in different areas of life.
Too many writers assume too much of their readers. Sellers don’t make enough effort to educate their buyers. Politicians fail to convey their policies and manifestos to voters.
What I see all too often in the field of presenting and public speaking is the same mistake—an assumption of too much knowledge among the audience.
It’s an easy trap to fall into unless you apply some perspective.
Think about what it’s like for a top athlete like Usain Bolt.
His coach Glen Mills is highly respected in the field of athletics. He has also coached world champion Yohan Blake and was the head coach for the Jamaican Olympics athletics team. But to look at him you wouldn’t know it.
Imagine if the pair of them decided to have a running race over 100 metres. Bolt is lined up in the blocks in one lane and his coach is crouched down in another. The starter fires the pistol and they are off.
Who do you think wins the race?
Even though Mills is a highly experienced athletics coach, who has spent most of his life down at the track, I’m pretty sure you would agree that Bolt wins the race. Every day of the week.
Yet, Bolt wants Mills as a coach. Why?
Because Bolt (like any other top performer) is wise enough to understand that there are things he doesn’t know. He can’t see outside his own perspective.
Mills may not be the best performer. He gave up sprinting at an early age and switched to coaching. Yet he has the ability to bring out the best in Bolt. Even a top performer like Bolt needs some reality check and some outside perspective to achieve his peak performance.
The same is true for all of us, no matter what standard we are. It’s impossible for us to see what we can’t see. It’s a universal truth.
When it comes to delivering great presentations it’s always a good idea to look at things from a different perspective. It helps you to see things as others do, which makes you a better presenter.
Gaining a different perspective is how you break the curse of knowledge.
Real life example
In 2020 I worked with Diana Hudson who is Director of Creative Exchange UK, a social enterprise in the creative and cultural industries.
Diana came to me because she had lost confidence in her own ability to deliver talks and training sessions as coherently as she would have liked. Like many people, she found the switch to video calls difficult during the Covid pandemic, after years of meeting in person. Diana felt she needed some structure and coherence with her presenting.
We worked on some systems and methods which she could apply to her work. She found that understanding the needs of the other person was a major breakthrough. It influenced the order in which she gave information, for example.
Diana told me that she noticed she had become more effective at presenting when she was later called up to speak at a funeral. A number of people came up to her afterwards and said how professional she had been.
Now that she has more structure in place, Diana says, “I feel much more in control. If I tried to improve on my own, I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere close to where I am today.”
How does this apply to me?
Next time you have a presentation to deliver, take time to think carefully about how you’ll communicate your key messages. Are you assuming your audience has more knowledge than they do? What’s the correct level to pitch the talk so everyone can buy into what you’re saying?
Stop to consider whether your audience will know what you’re talking about. There’s nothing wrong with breaking things down to their simplest form. That’s good communication.
A good way to avoid the curse of knowledge is to focus on concrete rather than abstract concepts. Introduce real examples which will bring your ideas to life. Tell stories to illustrate your key points.
In a previous article I’ve looked in detail at how to use stories to make your presentations more powerful. People remember anecdotes and examples far more easily than abstract concepts.
Tell stories and your audience will understand your ideas, remember them and act upon them.
Too many presenters fall into the trap of assuming their audience has more knowledge than they do. It’s an easy mistake to make. We all acquire expertise throughout our lives, following our own unique path through education and careers.
But when it comes to speaking to an audience, too much knowledge can be a dangerous thing. You can assume that your audience knows what you do.
This dilemma is known as the curse of knowledge and is the enemy of good communication.
To counter this, you must gain some external perspective to ground yourself back down.
When preparing a presentation take time to think about your message and how to communicate it simply to an audience, pitching at the right level for them.
Communicating your ideas in a simple way is more likely to resonate with your audiences—which will make it easier for you to achieve your business goals.
If you enjoyed this article, please contact me with feedback. I’d appreciate it if you would comment, get in touch or share the article with any colleagues or friends who might benefit from the ideas.
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