On Persistence
FAQ: Training for Certification

The Curse of Knowledge

It's been quite a while since I've posted.  Luckily, I spent the last week vacationing in Hawaii (mostly Kona).  I'd post a picture, but it's too difficult to choose from the volcano, manta rays, sea horses, sea turtles, whales...!  I've been told that 2-3 days is plenty for the Big Island.  Wrong!  We had 6 days and didn't get to do everything we'd have liked to.  However, I fear we've set our kids up for future vacation disappointment - my seven year old has already asked if we could visit the remaining HI islands over the summer.  Yeh, right.

Anyway, something I encountered repeatedly over the past couple of weeks that I think we can all learn from.  When I've asked for instructions or guidance from someone, they've often answered me as if I was already informed.  Duh.  If I was informed, I wouldn't be asking the question!  Here's one conversation while in Cinci, my last business meeting before vacation. 

Me to hotel front desk right after checking in (I'm thinking that's a clue that I don't know my way around  yet):  Can you direct me to the nearest place to make photocopies?

Him:  Sure, there's a Kinkos near the Westin, on the first level.

Me: How do I get to the Westin?

Him:  Take the skyway.

Me: How do I get to the skyway?

Him: Take the elevator to the second level.

Me: Where's the elevator?

You get the idea? 

The Heath brothers, in their book, "Made to Stick" call this the curse of knowledge.  The curse of knowledge happens because when we know something, it becomes hard for us to imagine not knowing it.  As a result we become lousy communicators.  Yes, once I figured it out, the Hilton to the Westin was a simple walk (took shorter to get there than it did to get the instructions, I think!).  But, since I'd been to neither before (much less the skyway in between), I had no frame of reference.  The Westin could have been across the river in Kentucky for all I knew.

Do your members or applicants have to know the answers already to be able to find them?  How often do you proof your own writing?  Well, of course it makes sense to you, you wrote it!  The key is to see if it makes any sense to others, without your knowledge. 

I recently read written materials of a client in order to create a flash-based on-line presentation for them (highlighting changes to an existing program).  There were a few sections that I just read over and over and finally had to call for clarification.  Even after the verbal clarification, I had to admit I just wasn't getting it.  In fact, there were at least two examples where I completely misinterpreted concepts.  They were alarmed -- not at my inability to comprehend (I've worked with the group for over 15 years so they know me and my capabilities well)-- they were alarmed that their materials that were almost out the door to the printers were confusing, even to someone who knows the program.  The lesson here, I think, is to not assume your language is clear to the uninformed.  Test it.  Have them read it and tell you what it says.  Unfortunately, what you think you've written is not necessarily what they'll say they've read.


Matt Baehr

My wife is so good at not having the curse. We had someone ask for directions while we were walking in downtown DC a few weeks ago. This person was in their car, and my wife proceded to explain the city being laid out in a grid and the whole lettered and numbered street thing, before telling her exactly how to get there.

However, too many people think you are talking down to them when you give them more information.

It's tough to win.

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