In 1990, psychologist Elizabeth Newton asked her Stanford University students to play a simple game. Half of them were told they would be “tappers,” and their job was to tap the rhythm of one of several universally known songs, like “Happy Birthday.” The other half of the students were asked to be “listeners,” and their goal was to guess the song that was being tapped.
Prior to running the experiment, Newton asked the tappers to estimate how often the listeners would guess the song correctly. The tappers thought it would be about 50% of the time. It turned out the listeners guessed correctly only 3% of the time.
Take a moment right now to try it out for yourself. Tap “Happy Birthday” on your desk or a nearby book or computer. When you tap it, do you hear the melody of the song in your head?
In this case, hearing the song in our heads is called the curse of knowledge. We see it a lot in our coaching and teaching. When we “hear the melody” of our message in our heads while we are communicating, we have a false sense that our audience will hear it too.
I learned about the curse of knowledge and the tappers and listeners story from Chip and Dan Heath’s outstanding book called “Made to Stick.” The whole idea behind the curse is that you do not know what it’s like not to know what you know.
Let’s say you have been putting in 60 hours a week on a project for the past three months. In that time, you have surfed through various levels of understanding of your subject. Perhaps you have gone to bed at night confused about a nuance of the project, but the following day you have a breakthrough about that same point while jogging on the treadmill. You have had time to investigate, question, absorb and reflect on the crux of the issue.
When you go to share your project’s recommendations, it’s critical to try not to hear “Happy Birthday” in your head as you explain things to an audience that hasn’t had the same benefit of time and reflection (and morning-after breakthroughs on the treadmill).
Your audience is rooting for you to take your vast knowledge and distill it into simple key points. When people ask you to “Explain it to me like I’m a first-grader,” they mean explain it to them without the curse of knowledge. This holiday season, avoid the curse of knowledge and give the gift of simplicity.
We believe that great communication skills change the world. We transform people and organizations of all sizes with simple, repeatable techniques, through an integrated platform of corporate training, coaching, and asynchronous learning.
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