Chip and Dan Heath were recently interviewed by Guy Kawasaki about their book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. There’s an interesting part where they discuss “the Curse of Knowledge.”
People tend to think that having a great idea is enough, and they think the communication part will come naturally. We are in deep denial about the difficulty of getting a thought out of our own heads and into the heads of others. It’s just not true that, “If you think it, it will stick.”
And that brings us to the villain of our book: The Curse of Knowledge. Lots of research in economics and psychology shows that when we know something, it becomes hard for us to imagine not knowing it. As a result, we become lousy communicators. Think of a lawyer who can’t give you a straight, comprehensible answer to a legal question. His vast knowledge and experience renders him unable to fathom how little you know. So when he talks to you, he talks in abstractions that you can’t follow. And we’re all like the lawyer in our own domain of expertise.
Here’s the great cruelty of the Curse of Knowledge: The better we get at generating great ideas—new insights and novel solutions—in our field of expertise, the more unnatural it becomes for us to communicate those ideas clearly. That’s why knowledge is a curse. But notice we said “unnatural,” not “impossible.” Experts just need to devote a little time to applying the basic principles of stickiness.
JFK dodged the Curse [with “put a man on the moon in a decade”]. If he’d been a modern-day politician or CEO, he’d probably have said, “Our mission is to become the international leader in the space industry, using our capacity for technological innovation to build a bridge towards humanity’s future.” That might have set a moon walk back fifteen years.
There’s also a bit about how General Mills cut costs and increased sales by eliminating some flavors of Hamburger Helper.
What they found was that moms didn’t care about variety of flavors. This was a shocking insight within the company: previous generations of marketers and food scientists had created thirty flavors of Hamburger Helper! On the other hand the moms did care about being able to find the same predictable flavor that their kids would actually eat. Using this concrete information, Studzinski’s team convinced people across General Mills to reduce the number of products. Costs went way down and sales went up.