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  • Writer's pictureStu

Has your experience cursed your communication?

It turns out that our brains forget what it’s like to NOT know something. We may have invested a tonne of time (maybe years) to get across the subject matter, and then we forget what it’s like to be the newbie.

This bites us in the proverbial when we have something important to say, because we can short-change the very thing that will help our message to land: context.

▶ Why does this matter?

When we leave out the context it’s like ripping out the first few chapters of a book. The reader is left scrambling to piece together who’s who, what’s the backstory and why it matters. Not only does it put our message at risk, but it also frustrates the heck out of the listener.

That, by the way, is not a good thing when we’re trying to get something across the line.

▶ What does science say?

Science has a title for this tendency to take for granted what we know; it’s called the “Curse of Knowledge”. It’s a cognitive bias where we wrongly assume that the other person has the background to understand.

Why do we assume this? Because we already know the background, and once we know something we forget what it’s like to not know.

This was cleverly illustrated in the 1990s when Stanford University’s Elizabeth Newton asked individuals to tap out the rhythm of popular tunes, such as “Happy Birthday”, on a table in an attempt to get a listener to guess the name of each song.

Here’s the twist. Before starting, the tappers had to predict how many songs the listener would correctly identify. They predicted a 50% success rate.

They were miles off. The actual success rate was 2.5%. The tappers had been “cursed” with the knowledge of the tune and overestimated their ability to communicate by a factor of 20.

We don’t have to be tapping out our pitch, presentation or proposal to be similarly cursed.

We can forget that our listeners have yet to walk the path we have to know what we know.

▶ Now what?

Chances are we’re undercooking context.

The remedy? Deliberately do context. Double down on context by erring on the side of more rather than less.

(and stay tuned for an upcoming video on a quick way to set the context at the start of the conversation)

When we invest in context upfront, we pave the way for meaningful dialogue.


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