CMOs, beware the Curse of Knowledge

There are only a few ways to combat and overcome the Curse of Knowledge. Here are five ways that can help you build a better approach to communication.

When we have too much knowledge about whatever we have to provide, we tend to fall into a trap called the Curse of Knowledge. This is what happens when we wrongfully assume that the other party has the same amount of knowledge about something as we do.

To understand this concept, let’s look at a study that Elizabeth Newton performed in 1990. Newton earned her PhD in psychology at Stanford University through an experiment where she studied people playing a simple game.

The game entailed people taking sides as either a “tapper” or a “listener”. The tapper had to pick one song from a listing of twenty-five familiar songs, such as “Happy Birthday to You” and “The Star-Spangled Banner”. The tapper would then tap out the rhythm by knocking on a table.

The listener’s job was to guess the song, based on the tapping. Newton found that the listeners weren’t able to guess the songs correctly at all. The listeners made only three correct guesses from out of 120 songs tapped out. That’s only 2.5%.

What made this worthy of a dissertation in psychology was the difference in perception.

Before the listeners made their guesses, Newton also had the tappers predict the chances of the listeners making a correct guess. The tappers predicted that the listeners had a 50% chance of making the right call.

That’s a tremendous difference: a prediction of 50% versus a reality of 2.5%. That means the tappers were off by 95%!

So why were the tappers so off in their predictions? The reason was that the tappers were given knowledge—the song title—and that makes it difficult for them to imagine what it’s like not having that knowledge.

In fact, the tappers were oftentimes shocked at how hard a time the listeners had trying to identify the song. Isn’t the song obvious? When the listener guessed the wrong song, the expression that the tapper displayed was often one of complete disbelief.

This is the Curse of Knowledge. When the listeners were hearing the taps, they were hearing isolated taps rather than a song. The listener cannot connect the taps the same way that the tapper does because they lack the knowledge that the tapper has.

When we have knowledge of something, it’s hard for us to imagine what it’s like to not know it. We have been effectively “cursed” by our knowledge. This makes it very difficult to communicate with others, unless we try to recreate our listeners’ state of mind.

The Curse of Knowledge plays out each day worldwide, but the tappers/ listeners are replaced by everyday people. Every interaction that we have faces this curse, especially when we are running businesses.

As entrepreneurs and business owners communicating to our teams, we tend to use terms that seem very logical to us—terms like “strategic initiatives” or “global leader in ABC (whatever your industry is)”.

However, these are highly nuanced terms that can mean anything and also depends a lot on how someone interprets it. It’s hard to avoid the Curse of Knowledge—huge information imbalances are everywhere.

As entrepreneurs, we have experience and knowledge about our industry, business, product, or service. The more seasoned we are, the more years we have spent on something, the more knowledge we have. This results in an even greater gap that we have to bridge, in order to communicate with our listeners effectively.

There are only a few ways to combat and overcome the Curse of Knowledge. Here are five ways that can help you build a better approach to communication.

Know Your Audience

Whoever the recipient of your message is, you should find out how familiar they are with the topic that you’re talking about. Even if you’re a CEO talking about marketing to a marketer, don’t assume that the marketer knows all the marketing lingo and concepts that you know. Always check.

Identify Your Assumptions

Whenever we do or say anything, we make certain assumptions. This is just our minds making sense of the world and making things more efficient for us. The key thing to understand is that this efficiency is great for us when we operate alone, but terrible if we want to communicate with others. Whenever we involve others and wish to communicate effectively, we have to identify the assumptions that we are making and see if they need to be addressed in our messaging.

Provide Ideas that are Simple to Understand

The best communicators are not the ones with the most advanced vocabulary, nor are they the ones with the most complex ideas. The best communicators use basic everyday words to communicate simple ideas.

Show, Don’t Tell

If you want to communicate effectively, simply telling is terrible. There are too many assumptions that we make when we tell things. Showing is much better. Use diagrams, frameworks, structures, examples, to illustrate your point and bring clarity to your audience.

Get Feedback

The best thing to do is to get feedback for everything that you say. Find out what is it that is unclear. If possible, get your audience to give you the main points about your message in their own words to verify if they’ve got your message properly.

Knowing that we are all susceptible to the Curse of Knowledge is the first step to improving our communication skills. By keeping these points in mind, we can dramatically improve our communication.

Alvin Poh, the founder of Vodien Internet Solutions, is the author of, Super Scaling. The above commentary has been excerpted from his recently released book.