Last week, I was fortunate enough to attend a presentation by Chip Heath, one of the authors of one of my favorite books, Made to Stick, who is now in the middle of a nationwide tour to promote his new book, Switch. [These links lead to Amazon. Full Disclosure: I earn a commission if you purchase through these links.] After the short presentation (which was awesome!), I stood in line like a rabid teenage pop star fan and got my free copy of Switch signed, as you can see.
During the lunch that followed, I ended up debriefing a friend about some of the principles in Made to Stick, which he had yet to read. One of the topics that came up, was “The Curse of Knowledge”. (Insert sinister laugh here.)
The “Curse of Knowledge” is best illustrated in a little game that you can play with a friend. Try it out:
Find a friend, and tell him or her you're going to tap the rhythm to a song, and they have to try and guess what it is. Try a song that's simple, like “Happy Birthday”, or “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”—a song that we all should know.
You would think that it would be easy for your friend to guess the songs that you're tapping, however in most cases, you'll find that they will not be able to figure it out. I've done this several times, and I'm usually left baffled that my friends can't even recognize some of the most famous and simple tunes.
In fact, in a study by Elizabeth Newton nearly 20 years ago, it was determined that the listeners would correctly name the tapped song only 2.5% of the time, while the tappers predicted that the listeners would at least get it right half of the time.
Here it is explained a little further in Made To Stick:
“The problem is that tappers have been given knowledge (the song title) that makes it impossible for them to imagine what it’s like to lack that knowledge. When they’re tapping, they can’t imagine what it’s like for the listeners to hear isolated taps rather than a song. This is the Curse of Knowledge. Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. 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 Business That We're In
We are in the business of teaching—imparting the knowledge and experience that we possess to others. However, as teachers, much like the tappers, we are “cursed” with the knowledge that we already have.
It's difficult for us to put ourselves in the shoes of those less knowledgeable about whatever subject or niche we're in, but in my opinion, it is those who are successful at doing so that grab more followers, gain more authority, and probably earn more too. The more you can put yourself in the shoes of those learning from you, the more successful you will be.
What makes it even harder for us is that not everyone who we are trying to teach is at the exact same level. Assume too much from our audience, and we might confuse (and lose) people along the way. Assume too little, and you might end up coming across as being offensive…
…or maybe not.
Dumbing It Down
I don't really like to use the phrase “dumb it down” because it comes with sort of a negative connotation, like it's for someone who is stupid, or “slow”. However “dumbing it down”, or explaining things in terms and methods that are easy to understand (relative to your audience) is something you should not be afraid of doing.
In fact, many people will appreciate the fact that you are making things easier to understand. In most cases, those who already know what you're talking about will never even begin to think that you're somehow making them feel stupid. Sometimes, it makes them feel better because they know they're on the right track.
Because of this, it's safer to “dumb it down”.
That being said, there is some common sense involved in regards to knowing who your audience is and what they already understand.
For example, you might be ok with me explaining how to search for definitions in Google like this:
Step 1: Go to http://www.google.com.
Step 2: In the search field, type in “Definition: word” (replace word with the actual word you're looking to define), and press search.
Step 3: Read through the various definitions that show up in the results.
However, you might think I'm belittling you if I were to explain it like this instead:
Step 1: With your hand on top of your mouse, move the cursor (the arrow on your monitor) to the top of your screen and click on “FILE”, located on the left hand side.
Step 2: In the “FILE” menu, click on “Open a New Window”. A new blank window will appear on your screen.
Step 3: Using your keyboard, type in the following website address…
…and so on and so forth.
Because you're here reading this, I have to assume that you at least know how to use a computer and make your way around the internet. But, can I assume that you already know how to search for definitions in Google?
No. But if you already knew how, and I went through a few simple steps, would you be mad at me?
How About “Breaking It Down”?
I like to use the phase”Break it Down” instead.
Besides being what I try to do on the dance floor, “breaking it down” means taking an idea, a thought, a goal, or something in it's “whole form”, and breaking it down into smaller pieces so it's easier to understand.
It's reverse engineering.
In all of the ebooks I've ever written, I've always used “breaking it down” as the method of determining how I write and present my material. Over 10,000 copies later, I have yet to hear anyone tell me that the material in my ebooks are too easy to understand, or belittling.
So What Do You Think?
Have you noticed the “Curse of Knowledge” when other people have tried to teach you something? What do you do when you teach something to make sure your audience is on the same page as you?
Fact: Did you know that most local newspapers write for a 6th to 8th grade level of readership? Why do you think that is?