October 13, 2011
The Curse of Knowledge
Authors and editors know too much. And that goes for speakers, teachers and preachers too. They know too much about the subjects they are presenting. Why is that a bad thing? It's what Chip and Dan Heath, in Made to Stick, call the Curse of Knowledge.
Remember the song tapping game? One person taps out the rhythm to a well-known song and the other person is supposed to guess what it is. The tapper can't figure out why the listener has such a hard time. To the tapper, the song is obvious. It's the Curse of Knowledge.
What's the Curse? When people know something, they can't remember what it is like to not know it. So what seems obvious to them is not at all clear to potential readers or listeners. Writers and speakers tend to present their material at a higher level than their audience is prepared for. More complexity, more nuance, more detail. The result: the ideas don't stick.
How do you remove the Curse? Dumbing down is not the answer. Making ideas memorable is. As an example, the Heaths quote the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It's "the ultimate model of simplicity: a one-sentence statement so profound that an individual could spend a lifetime learning to follow it."
One key to is finding the core. What is the central idea, the one idea that really matters? The Heaths recount the challenges of getting the Clinton campaign on track in 1992. What could be more complex and have more audiences than a presidential campaign? Policy wonks abounded, not the least of which was Clinton himself. To cut through the complexity, political adviser James Carville famously wrote on the board at their headquarters, "It's the economy, stupid."
Authors and speakers know all the complexities of their topics, all the audiences they are ambitiously trying to reach, all the great concepts they are trying to impart. Communicating effectively begins by picking one idea and one audience. If you want to fail, go after them all.