The Curse Of Knowledge (Or How You Can Become Better At Communication)

Elizabeth Newton is a behavorial psychologist. In 1990, she conducts an experiment. She gathers people and divides them into 2 groups. The first group are the “tappers” while the second group are the “listeners.”

The tappers are given a list of common songs like “Happy Birthday to You.” Their task is to tap their knuckles on a table to the rhythm of the song in their head. The listeners are supposed to guess which song is being tapped.

Before the task begins, the tappers are asked how often do they believe the listeners will name the song correctly. On average, they expect the listeners to be right 50% of the time.

Over the course of the experiment, 120 songs are tapped out. But surprisingly, the listeners manage to accurately identify the song only 3 times out of these 120 attempts! They are right only 2.5% of the time.

Most tappers get very frustrated and agitated during the experiment. How can the listeners not get the song? Are the stupid?

While the songs are very clear in the minds of the tappers, to the listeners, the tapping just sounds like Morse code. The knowledge of the song makes it impossible to think how the listener will perceive the tapping.

Going beyond Morse code

This is exactly what happens with miscommunications. It’s very hard for experts to realize why the listener does not understand the concepts.

So how can you overcome this curse of knowledge? How can you become a better communicator and get more people to understand you?

You learn from how the best teachers teach young kids in school. Think back to the best teacher you had in school. And you will find that she broke things down to its basics, and used a lot of stories to convey the lesson.

Action Summary: Communication Lesson from Teachers

Here are a few key lessons I have learned from some of the best teachers out there:

  • Break things down to their simplest blocks.
  • Make use of stories and case studies to explain your point.
  • Don’t tell. Show.
  • Use less jargon and industry terms. Or explain them as soon as you use them.
  • Ask the listener to repeat in her own words the lesson she has learned.