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The Curse of Knowledge

You know too much.

You know too much.

Long ago, when I was a product manager at NBI, I gave a speech on local area networks (LANs) at a customer conference. LANs were just becoming popular at the time and industry analysts were debating which standards would prevail.

NBI was betting on a standard called CSMA/CD. IBM was betting on token ring. The objective of my speech was to persuade the audience that CSMA/CD was the better choice and, therefore, more likely to prevail in the long run. Token ring, on the other hand, was risky and might become a dead end product – much like IBM’s OS/2 operating system.

I knew the technology cold and I gave a great speech if I do say so myself. I highlighted the technology advantages of CSMA/CD. I set criteria around the key functions that CSMA/CD could perform and token ring couldn’t. I know that most audiences admire IBM so I didn’t take any cheap shots at Big Blue. A cheap shot would weaken my credibility, not theirs.

At the end of the speech, I was busy patting myself on the back when a very nice woman came up and asked a simple question: “What’s a LAN?” Throughout my speech, I had defined an array of advanced technical concepts but had forgotten to define the basics. My face turned red as I realized that I had just made the rookiest of rookie mistakes. I had asked the audience to come to my house rather than going to their house.

In the trade, this is known as the curse of knowledge. I knew the audience wouldn’t know the finer points of CSMA/CD but I assumed – erroneously – that they grasped the basics. I didn’t need to explain them. I never even thought about it.

In Made To Stick, the Brothers Heath tell the story of “tappers” and “listeners” which was the subject of Elizabeth Newton’s dissertation in psychology. Tappers received a list of popular songs and were asked to tap out the song on a tabletop. No whistling or humming allowed; just tap on the table. Listeners were supposed to guess the song.

Tappers were confident that they could convey the song successfully at least 50 percent of the time. But, in fact, listeners guessed the song correctly only 2.5 percent of the time.

Why were the tappers so confident? Because they could hear the song in their head. They heard the taps but they also heard so much more. As the Heaths point out, “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.”

When I gave my speech on LANs, I could hear the entire song in my head. I knew how it sounded. I knew how to orchestrate it. I knew where to pause. I knew where to put in jokes. I knew it cold.

The only thing I didn’t know was what was in my audience’s head. That’s the curse.

Verbal, Vocal, Visual – Body Language and You

Let me explain quantum mechanics.

Let me explain quantum mechanics.

A woman says to a man, “Oh, you’re such a brute.” What does she mean? Well, it depends. The words have meaning in themselves but the way they’re delivered also counts for something.

Let’s say that she delivers the line with an aggressive posture, a scowl on her face, and a harsh tone in her voice. Most of us would conclude that the man should take her words literally; she’s angry and the man should back off.

On the other hand, let’s say she delivers the same line with a smile on her face, a flirtatious giggle in her voice, and a soft, inviting posture. She uses the same words but delivers them in a very different way. Most people would conclude that she doesn’t mean for her words to be taken literally. What she does mean may not be crystal clear but it’s probably not the literal words she speaks. (By the way, I adapted this example from an excellent article in New Scientist).

This is what Albert Mehrabian, the father of the so-called 7%-38%-55% rule, was studying. Mehrabian was trying to identify how face-to-face communication actually transpires, especially when the words are ambiguous. He identified three basic components: 1) the words themselves; 2) tone of voice; and 3) body language, including facial expressions. These are often summarized as the three V’s – verbal, vocal, visual.

In ambiguous situations, especially when discussing feelings, how do you sort out what the other person means? Mehrabian calculated that the words themselves account for 7% of the meaning (from the perspective of the receiver). Tone-of-voice accounts for 38% of the meaning, and body language accounts for 55%. To determine whether you’re really a brute or not, you should probably pay less attention to what the woman says and more attention to how she says it. (For more on the multiple meanings of simple words, click here).

Mehrabian’s findings may be accurate in the very specific case of conveying feelings in face-to-face communication. Unfortunately, far too many “experts” have over-extrapolated the data and applied it to all communications. When you give a speech, for instance, they may claim that 93% of what the audience receives comes from tone-of-voice and body language.

If that were really true, then why speak at all? If 93% of meaning comes from non-verbal channels, a good mime should be able to deliver a speech just as well as you can. Indeed, if 93% of communication is non-verbal, then why do we bother to learn foreign languages?

Fortunately or unfortunately, even Marcel Marceau (pictured) can’t effectively deliver an information-laden speech without words. Words are important – use them wisely and use them sparingly. Body language is also important. The best advice on body language is simple: you should appear comfortable and confident to your audience. If you don’t, your audience will wonder what you’re hiding. If you do appear comfortable and confident, your audience will attend to your words – for much more than 7% of the meaning.

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