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The Curse of Knowledge

September 17, 2010

Picture of book coverMade to Stick” is a book by Dan and Chip Heath and it deserves a place on your shelf–it’s already on mine.  Although I’ll recommend the book (again), this post isn’t a book review, that’s been done already lots of places on the net. Instead, I want to expand on something that the Heath Brothers talk about in the book: ‘The Curse of Knowledge.” That’s a phrase they use a lot and ever since reading the book, it keeps coming back to me over and over.

An example of the curse in action.

Again this week I sat in another briefing watching PowerPoint slides and knew the audience was getting next to nothing out of it. The topic was interesting, the presenter was enthusiastic, and he knew his material. The slides were poor, but no worse than usual. So if the audience wasn’t connecting with the presenter or the material, why? I think the major factor was ‘The Curse of Knowledge.”

As I watched, a deep divide opened between the audience and the presenter. To his credit, I could see that the presenter sensed something was wrong, but it was also clear that he had no idea just what was wrong or what to do about it. The presenter truly is an expert in the field—but he was at a loss to understand why the audience didn’t “get it.” I’m sure that he genuinely believed that he was explaining things as simply as they could be made and I’m also sure he was convinced it was the audience’s fault they didn’t “get it”. On that score, he was completely wrong because it’s not about the presenter.

How the curse makes simple seem impossible.

I’ve hit the “Make it Simple” theme several times before and I know from experience how hard it can be to get there. But the Curse of Knowledge can make it impossible. Now that’s a word I don’t use lightly, but I think it fits here. Not because it was impossible to make the presentation’s message simple enough, but because we often develop a blind spot which makes it impossible for us to realize that we’ve not gotten to the simple-and-clear-enough point. The Heath brothers put it like this:

Becoming an expert in something means that we become more and more fascinated by nuance and complexity. That’s when the Curse of Knowledge kicks in, and we start to forget what it’s like not to know what we know. Making something simple can seem like ‘dumbing down’ …it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind.

This “simple enough” point is audience dependent which returns to a very early post here on audience analysis. Knowing the audience is crucial, but the new point is this

When we really know the topic deeply, it may be almost impossible for us to realize just how much we know that the audience doesn’t.

That’s the curse. It can be a huge obstacle to an unwary presenter’s success. Indeed, the presenter in my story let his knowledge, which should have been a strength, become an obstacle and it led to (another) failed presentation. The audience got little or nothing out of it, remembered even less and had nothing to act on when it was done. Worst of all, he had no idea what had gone wrong.

It doesn’t have to be that way

A successful outcome for my story would have required him to get help understanding the audience and in finding a simpler way to convey his message. The ideas underpinning his message are complex, but the message he wanted the audience to get wasn’t. The Curse of Knowledge was the barrier he couldn’t get past to see the difference.

Don’t let The Curse get you!

Reading Made to Stick, being aware that The Curse is out to get you and getting some help on the path to simple enough will go a long way towards avoiding this subtle and nasty pitfall for presenters.

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