The curse of knowledge

Turns out we know too much, and it’s a curse. The trouble is, once we know something we can’t imagine not knowing what we do. So our messages occasionally miss the mark, because they pay no regard to the ‘unknowing’ state of mind of our listeners.

Academics are cursed by knowledge. They’ve spent years – entire careers – up to the hilt in rich seams of knowledge. They’re smart, that’s for sure, but their knowledge is unevenly shared with outsiders, who stop listening because they can’t keep up (how could they?). It is one thing to think like the wise man, but quite another to communicate in the language of the people.

Psychologist Elizabeth Newton illustrated the curse of knowledge with a simple game in which people tapped out the rhythm of their favourite song. Listeners had to guess the name of the song. Of the 120 songs that were tapped out, listeners correctly guessed the names of just three – a fraction of the 50 per cent success rate predicted by people tasked with tapping out the songs.

Why? Because a ‘tapper’ can’t avoid hearing the tune they’re tapping. But all the listener can hear is crazy Morse code. Yet the sheer number of listeners unable to correctly pick the tune perplexed tappers. The song was so clear in their heads – how could listeners fail to recognise the tune being tapped?

Knowledge curses everyone. It comes with job specialisation. It’s in our business interests to possess more knowledge than our competitors, subordinates, and customers. But that imbalance shouldn’t impede communication.

Can you imagine workers on the factory floor showing a flicker of interest in a CEO address peppered with terms like EBITDA, “time to value” and “value proposition”? I’ve witnessed eyes glaze over and booted feet shuffle. Like Elizabeth Newton’s experiment, the meaning in the CEO’s tapping was lost in transmission.

With a bit more thought, company leaders can recast complex information as simple ideas and use concrete nouns rather than abstracted terms to get across their ideas.

It takes more effort, but when everyone gets the same picture the payoff is huge.

Think like the wise man but communicate in the language of the people – William Butler Yeats.