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Compelling Communications and the Curse of Knowledge

Posted: 7/9/2021

Click here to read on Philanthropy Daily.

By IAIN BERNHOFT

A month into a new year, you've been trotting out that 2021 messaging in a spirit of hope: maybe this will be the year that the message really sticks. Out go the emails, the early grant proposals, the direct mail appeals . . . and you await confirmation that the world—or at least your donors—has heard and understood what you do and why it matters.

Chances are, the world will disappoint you. Chances are, we'll be faced with the question once more: why don't people truly get what we're trying to say?

In Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, the 2007 tour de force on crafting memorable messages, Chip and Dan Heath argue that the problem lies within. They call it the Curse of Knowledge. Like the fruit peddled by that infamous serpent, this curse too inhibits your communication with, and understanding of, your fellow creatures.

TAPPERS AND LISTENERS

The Heaths illustrate this with a brilliant social science experiment in which people were divided into two groups. "Tappers" would tap out famous melodies (think: "Happy Birthday") on the tabletop, and "listeners" were to listen to the tapping and guess the tune.

What was remarkable was that the tappers thought the listeners would correctly guess the tune more than half the time, whereas the listeners actually correctly guessed the tune less than 5% of the time—to the utter disbelief of the tappers. ("You idiot, how did you not know that I was tapping The Star-Spangled Banner?!") The listeners were trying to make sense of what seemed like random taps, while the tappers couldn't not hear the melody in their head as they tapped, and thus couldn't imagine what the taps sounded like without the melody: the curse of knowledge.

The Curse of Knowledge is simply this: Once you know something, it's very hard to put yourself in the shoes of someone who doesn't know—and thus hard to communicate ideas to them effectively. If you've ever encountered an organization whose website or messaging was a mish-mashed jumble of ideas and information, chances are they're suffering under the burden of the Curse of Knowledge—they know the significance of those various details, but are unable to simplify them in a way that makes them intelligible to an outsider.

CURSES AND CURES

This is the dilemma that teachers and experts of all sorts must combat. Knowledge leads us towards thinking abstractly and speaking in jargon, and we realize only with difficulty how what seems natural and transparent to us will seem impenetrable to the novice. We say, "Have you considered vehicles for estate planning such as charitable gift annuities?" And Joe Donor thinks What kind of Downton Abbey Accountant-level nonsense is this? . . . neither party recognizing that the basic question is really, "Will you include us in your will?"

Part of the problem is specialized language. With knowledge comes technical terms, to which we are drawn because of their precision. We find ourselves similarly drawn to "suitcase" words—those catch-alls for complex ideas that we come to rely on precisely because they're a compact way of bringing in a bunch of ideas or concepts all at once: "social justice," "neoliberalism," "shareholder value"—and your organization surely has its internal jargon.

This language might sometimes be compact and precise, but more importantly it paves the way towards impenetrability—towards listeners growing confused and thus losing interest.

Falling into jargon is only half the battle, however. Another feature of the Curse of Knowledge is the tendency towards abstraction at the expense of concreteness. When a novice encounters a thing, he encounters it as a thing. The expert, on the other hand, sees not so much the thing as the larger pattern or ideas it exemplifies. But concrete things and specific examples are far more intelligible than abstractions. A dogfish is readily imaginable; a "specimen of Squalus acanthias" is not.

FINDING THE CORE

Because our own knowledge becomes natural—and thus in a way invisible to us, like the "tappers" and the "listeners"—it is imperative that we guard against words that import abstraction or jargon into our messaging. The great challenge one faces, once burdened with knowledge, is first to find the core of the idea—to strip it down to its critical essence, in all its clarity and concreteness—and then to communicate it effectively.

If we want our messages to be remembered and acted upon, we must speak simply and concretely; tangible images and flesh-and-blood examples must be our stock in trade. By shunning vague, aspirational words like "transformation" and "opportunity" and instead showing how, exactly, real people's lives are being changed for the better.

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