Why Knowledge is a Curse

In the process of learning, we pick up ideas that become so instinctive we feel like they’re obvious — that doesn’t mean they are.

The curse of knowledge will come up time and time again when speaking to customers, partners, even team members. We let the curse of knowledge trick us into thinking we are speaking clearly, but in fact it’s anything but.

The best known experiment that evidences the curse of knowledge is known as at the “tap test”. In it, there are two participants: one who taps out a familiar tune with a pen on a table, and the other who has to identify it.

The confidence of the tapper is that the listener will understand the vast majority of the well-known songs, it’s obvious they think. In reality, the success rate was only 2.5% — given the lack of information.

We do this every day when we are speaking to people about our businesses and products. We think we are being crystal clear, emphasising the most important points and focusing on the value — but as is often the case with anything in the world of startup — plans don’t always survive their first encounter with reality.

In our first Startup Club sessions we do an activity where two founders spend a couple of minutes introducing who they are and what they do to each other. The next step involves the partner then introducing the idea to the group.

I think this activity is so powerful because it immediately helps people see the curse of knowledge in action. Founders find it so uncomfortable hearing someone else introduce their business idea to the group. They’re missing the most important bit! How come they didn’t mention X?

That is the curse of knowledge. We think we emphasise the bits that we believe people will care about and then we hear their intro. It’s diluted and unfocused. That is super valuable feedback to help us understand where to focus our message, and where our filler is unnecessary and confusing.

When we read a book that completely changes our minds, we forget what it’s like to not know that idea or concept. It can influence every other idea or perspective we hold. And some bigger ideas about our product or service might be built on those foundations.

If you spend all of your time thinking about the idea, the problem it solves and the people it serves, it’s only right that you will have a lot more knowledge and stronger opinions on it.

This is why so many great marketing campaigns focus on one key point, and simplify things. Often, simple ideas and solutions are criticised for being too basic or obvious, but that is the beauty. If you can explain things in one sentence, graphic, or statement then you have a chance against the curse of knowledge.

This brings me to the final point, even if you think you are both talking about the same thing, quite often you’re absolutely not.

We did the beachball exercise with our team and it was amazing how quickly people got frustrated that the other side didn’t see their perspective.

The idea is to give two groups a different image of the beachball but from different angles, and ask them to describe what they can see without using the names of the colours.

The teams use concepts like flags, or nature to describe what they see, but even though they think they’re being crystal clear the other team disagrees.

In our industry we experience this a lot, but I think it is similar for many businesses.

The same beachball from three perspectives

On the surface you think it is one thing, and you have a fixed idea in your head of what that is. When you try to change that you have to be very persuasive, or more importantly help them to feel it for themselves. We’ll talk more about that in a future post.

When people realise they’re looking at the same thing from different perspectives you can either agree, agree to disagree, or get dragged into the narcissism of small differences.

Have you ever identified the curse of knowledge at work in a sales pitch or conversation you’ve had with your team? How have you adapted and made it fit?

Finally — thanks (and many commiserations) to those who have been in touch about the “Yes, and…” post. I’m sorry to hear that “No” and “Yes, but” cultures are still so strongly in existence in so many walks of life, and how many people have been negatively affected by those early-stage advisers as described.

As always, please do get in touch with your views on the curse of knowledge! It’s good to know when these posts land.

Tweet me, and remember it costs nothing to give a post a couple of claps!

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Gareth I. Jones

Gareth I. Jones

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Founder of TownSq, focused on building communities of entrepreneurs, supporting startups and B Corps - businesses that are better for the planet.