The Curse of Knowledge
We spend a lot of time and energy crafting our messages but sometimes an audience just doesn’t “get it,” even though it makes complete sense to us. This happens because of a well-known phenomenon called “The Curse of Knowledge.” Basically, our brains have a cognitive bias that makes it impossible to remember what it was like to not know something.
As message makers, we run up against the Curse of Knowledge all the time. We already know the thing that we want our audience to think or do differently and why, but we don’t remember what it was like to come to those conclusions ourselves. We might think we’ve made a fantastic message, but the problem is that two people can look at the exact same set of words or images and take completely different things away from it.
The thing we need to understand is that information is linearly connected to understanding: the less information we have the less understanding we have and, inversely, the more information we have the more understanding we have. To move our audience forward, we need to understand the difference between where we are in our information and understanding and where our audience is starting.
This is the reason that the Red Thread is organized the way it is: we can’t introduce our audience to Change language before we’ve sold them on the Problem and the Idea because they have to make those same steps of understanding that we’ve made. Put yourself in your audience’s shoes and you can turn the Curse of Knowledge into a blessing.
- Things You Can’t Unsee (and What They Say About Your Brain) in the Atlantic
- Duck or Rabbit? in the Independent
– Can you guess what I’m thinking? No? Oh, what if I gave you a clue? (Claps in a rhythm.) Do you know what I’m thinking now? Still not enough? What if I told you that those beats were the beats of a song that I’m hearing in my head? Listen again. (Claps again.) Now can you guess what I’m thinking?
Now, if you said Happy Birthday, you’re wrong because I was thinking of the Star Spangled Banner. Now why didn’t you get that? For the same reason your audience often doesn’t get your messages. I’m Tamsen Webster of TamsenWebster.com, and that’s what we’re talking about this week on Find the Red Thread.
It happens all the time, doesn’t it? Where something that we work really, really hard on, something that makes complete sense to us doesn’t make sense to somebody else. So it could be that guessing game that we just played, or it could be like the last time you played charades or Win, Lose, or Draw, or Pictionary. You knew that you had to draw an owl, and the other players in the game see a cat or a pineapple, and you don’t understand because in your mind it’s clearly that thing.
But this thing, this thing that happens in our head is a well-known phenomenon, and it’s a well-known phenomenon called The Curse of Knowledge. And what The Curse of Knowledge is really about is it’s a loophole that happens in our brain. It’s a cognitive bias that makes it impossible for us to remember what it was like to not know something.
If we know what the song is that we’re tapping out, we can’t not hear it when we are tapping it. If we know that we are drawing an owl, then what we’ve drawn clearly looks like an owl. But we can’t imagine what those scratches of lines or those disembodied taps actually look or sound like to somebody else.
Now, let’s back up and think about messages because this is the position that we as message makers find ourselves in all the time, where we already know the thing that we want somebody to do or to think differently. We already know all the reasons why we think that’s a good idea, but we don’t remember what it was like to come to those conclusions ourselves. And therein lies a huge problem with much marketing and messaging because our tools that we have to deal with are rough and crude really; because we have this very sophisticated idea in our head, and yet, all we have to work with, to communicate that idea to somebody else, to get them to come to the same conclusion are things like words, actions, and images.
Those things are powerful, don’t get me wrong, but different people see different things in them. You can use the same words and somebody can take a completely different set of meanings out of it. Same thing with an image. Have you ever seen one of those optical illusions where there’s a duck and a rabbit? And once you’ve seen one, it’s impossible not to see them both once you know that they’re both there.
But here’s the thing: you can’t ever see them both at the same time. You either see the duck or the rabbit. You see the old woman or the young woman. You can’t see the picture where both of them don’t exist because you already know it’s there.
So what can we do with that? Well, the thing we have to understand in order to solve that problem is that information is linearly connected to understanding. The less information that we have, the less understanding we’re going to have, and the more information we have, the more understanding we’re going to have.
This explains why these mismatches happen because we have a whole bunch of understanding and the audience doesn’t have any of it, and so the solution has to come from us turning that Curse of Knowledge into a blessing where we can take this new blessing of knowledge, this position of understanding where we are, but also understanding where the audience is and combine those to move them more effectively forward. To think in advance about where those mismatches might be.
It’s the main reason, by the way, why the Red Thread when you’re trying to figure it out from a message perspective starts with the audience’s Goal. It starts with what perspective they walk in having, what question they walk in wanting to know. It’s also why we can’t include any of our own Change language before we’ve introduced them to the Problem and Ihe idea. Why? Because they have to make those same steps of understanding that we did even if those same steps of understanding were unconscious at the time.
So how do you do this day-to-day? Well, you know what the basic pieces of the Red Thread are: the Goal, the Problem, the Idea, the Change, and the Action. But, even if you know that, there are going to be times where you’re going to get stuck by the Curse of Knowledge, where you can’t see what it is that you need somebody else to see. You can’t see it with fresh eyes.
So what do you do then? Well, there’s a couple things you can do. One is to see if you can put yourself in that other person’s shoes. A second thing to do is bring in a fresh set of eyes. Work with somebody who doesn’t know you or your organization well. Have them walk you through that process. Have them tell you when something doesn’t make sense.
The third thing you could do is, if you had to do it for yourself, or even if you work through it with somebody else, go and test that. Test those assumptions, test that message, test the pieces of the Red Thread with the audience whom you need to give it to, so that they can see and they can give you feedback on whether or not you’ve overcome that Curse of Knowledge. That’s this week’s episode of Find the Red Thread. I’m Tamsen Webster of TamsenWebster.com. And if you like this, go give us a review or a shout out on iTunes and subscribe on YouTube.