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Remember that Your Audience is “Intelligent, but Ignorant”: ”The Curse of Knowledge” (wisdom from the Heath brothers)

In Made to Stick:  Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, the Heath brothers describe a very real problem for people who give speeches and presentations.  Here’s the problem.  Speakers believe that their listeners know more they actually know.

Speakers do not want to “speak down” to the audience.  They do not want to treat the audience in a condescending manner.  This is all good.  But, the reality is, audiences frequently do not know — or if they at one time knew, they have forgotten.  Thus every speaker has to treat every audience as “intelligent, but ignorant.”

This is a crucial distinction.  “Intelligent” means that the audience is not “less than” any speaker – audience members are competent, smart, capable.  But viewing the audience as “intelligent, but ignorant” means that on this particular issue, the speaker has information to impart that the audience does not know or does not remember, and would not learn unless the speaker delivers the information in a very clear manner.

This problem, this mistake, is called “the curse of knowledge.” And it works this way: the speaker assumes that the audience already knows, or does remember.  And so, the speaker speaks, and the audience does not “get it.”  And the audience will not speak up and say “I don’t know that,” because to do so would make them feel stupid.  So, the speaker continues his/her message, oblivious to the fact that the audience is in the dark.

Thus, to combat this problem, the speaker needs to explain everything as though to a novice.

Here’s what the Heath brothers have to say:

Our knowledge has “cursed” us.  And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind.  The archvillain of sticky ideas is the Curse of Knowledge.

And in the book, they propose a simple, yet powerful experiment to demonstrate just how pervasive this problem is.  I have tried this with a number of audiences, and it always illustrates the problem very effectively.  They recommend “the song tapping experiment.”  The speaker taps out, on the table or podium, a familiar song (My current favorite is “You ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog”). To the one tapping, the song is oh-so-obvious.  To the audience, the song tapped out dimply does not register.  They just can’t make it out.  What is obvious to the tapper is gibberish to the tappee.  Again, from the book:  “tappers have been given knowledge {the song title} that makes it impossible for them to imagine what it’s like to lack that knowledge.”

Here’s the communication lesson.  Never use a phrase, or tell a story, assuming that the audience already knows it, and can fill in the blanks themselves.  Over-explain! For every time it might be a “mistake” to “over-explain,” it really is the smarter approach practically every time to take the “over-explain” route.  Because, let’s remember, there is no success in communicaiton until the audience gets what the speaker intends.

So, view your audience as intelligent, engaged – but still just a little on the “ignorant/needs-to-be-informed” side of the equation.  Do this, and you can rise above “the curse of knowledge.”