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Making our ideas stick – The Curse of Knowledge

The book ‘Made to stick’ by Chip and Dan Heath very cleverly tackles the problems revolving around the curse of knowledge and how to overcome it. This series of blog posts will be inspired by the book and aim to provide helpful tips which can be used within many aspects of life such as leadership, concept development, creating ads, improving communication skills and last but not least, portraying our ideas in a way which will make them stick!


We are constantly trying to improve the way we communicate, however a common thing which often gets in the way, and many leaders have been ‘victims’ of at one point or the other, is something called the ‘curse of knowledge’. In fact, it is safe to assume that everyone has without any doubt experienced this at some stage. Many simple strategies just don’t seem to be effective when it comes to working towards results as well as being implemented effectively. Why is this?

Are we not communicating our ideas well enough? Why are we sometimes so vague about things without realising? One explanation for this urge to inevitably make vague strategy statements relates to a phenomenon called the ‘Curse of Knowledge’. Lets take CEOs for example, when they speak abstractly, they are more or less summarising the wealth of experience and knowledge they have built up over their years. However, the employees on the receiving end who just don’t possess the same background and understanding, only hear vague non-transparent phrases which result in these strategies not ‘sticking’ with them.

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One of the most popular studies to illustrate the curse of knowledge is the ‘tapper and listeners’ game. This idea consists of a Person A being asked to tap out the rhythm of a well known song which Person B would have to recognise – pretty simple, right? Apparently not, the listener nearly always failed to identify the song, in fact the success rate was only 2.5%. When a tapper taps, it is impossible for them to avoid hearing the tune playing alongside the taps. At the same time, all the listener can hear is a kind of bizarre Morse code. Yet the tappers were stunned by how hard the listeners had to work to pick up the tune.

The problem is that once we know something—just like the melody of a song—we find it hard to imagine not knowing it. Our knowledge has “cursed” us. Due to the fact that we can’t seem to easily re-create someone else’s state of mind, we sometimes experience difficulty sharing things with them in a way which will also make sense to them.
Just like a CEO making vague strategy statements, there are many other aspects within our work environment that are subject to a similar phenomenon. Managers and employees, marketers and customers, corporate headquarters and the front line, they all depend on some kind of ongoing communication to sustain themselves however inevitably experience major imbalances when it comes to the amount of information they posses and don’t possess…very much like the tappers and listeners.

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A person sharing an idea has all sorts of insider information that others don’t, they understand the problem, the solution and they understand the relevance. However, without the ability to communicate these ideas effectively, it becomes more and more likely that the value of these ideas decreases.

‘Made to stick’ aims to talk about what exactly makes ideas psychologically ‘sticky’ and it achieves this by distilling years of research and communication science into 6 segments which can be remembered as a mnemonic spelling out SUCCESs. These 6 segments – Simplicity, Unexpectedness, Concreteness, Credibility, Emotions and Storytelling –  work towards developing ideas that get understood, remembered and that change something – minds or behaviours. Each upcoming blog post in this series will focus on one of the segments and hopefully capture the overall essence of the book as well as provide us with tips which can be used to our advantage.

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