The Curse of Knowledge


image“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few” — Shunryu Suzuki

To get your ideas across, you need to be simple and use stories. 

If it’s that simple then why can’t more people make ideas that stick?

Why do we end up with overcomplicated, lifeless prose?   

It’s the Curse of Knowledge. 

In Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Chip Heath and Dan Heath write about the Curse of Knowledge.

Beware the Curse of Knowledge

According to Chip and Dan, the Curse of Knowledge gets in the way of being simple and using stories:

“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 listener’s state of mind.”

Tappers and Listeners Example

Chip and Dan illustrate the Curse of Knowledge by sharing the "tappers" and "listeners" experiment.  In 1990, Elizabeth Newton conducted an experiment between tappers and listeners. 

Tappers would pick a song from a list and tap out the rhythm to a listener (by knocking on a table.) 

The listener’s job was to guess the song.

Tappers Didn’t Get Their Message Across

This experiment illustrated the Curse of Knowledge.  The tappers got their message across 1 time in 40, but they thought they were getting their message across 1 time in 2. 


When the tapper taps, they hear the song in their head.  Meanwhile, the listeners can’t hear that tune — they just hear a bunch of disconnected taps.

Two Ways to Beat the Curse of Knowledge

Can you defeat this villain?  According to Chip and Dan, there’s two ways:

  1. Don’t learn anything.
  2. Take your ideas and transform them.

Your best weapon for transforming your ideas and beating the Curse of Knowledge is the Six Principles of Sticky Ideas.

The Six Principles of Sticky Ideas

The six principles are:

  • Principle 1. Simplicity
  • Principle 2. Unexpectedness
  • Principle 3. Concreteness
  • Principle 4. Credibility
  • Principle 5. Emotions
  • Principle 6. Stories

You can use the six principles as a checklist for your stories.

CEO Example

The Curse of Knowledge can get in the way.  Chip and Dan provide an example:

“Let’s take the CEO who announces to their staff that they must strive to ‘maximize shareholder value.’ 

Is this idea simple? Yes, in the sense that it’s short, but it lacks the useful simplicity of a proverb.  Is it unexpected? No.  Concrete?  Not at all.  Credible?  Only in the sense that it’s coming from the mouth of the CEO.  Emotional?  Um, no.  A story?  No.”

JFK Example

Chip and Dan contrast how a CEO would talk about a trip to the moon vs. John F. Kennedy:

“Contrast the ‘maximize shareholder value’ idea with John F. Kennedy’s famous 1961 call to ‘put a man on the moon and return him safely by the end of the decade.’

Simple?  Yes.  Unexpected?  Yes.  Concrete?  Amazingly so.  Credible?  The goal seemed like science fiction, but the source was credible.  Emotional? Yes.  Story?  In miniature.”

If JFK Were a CEO

Chip and Dan give an example how John F. Kennedy’s speech might have gone if he was a CEO:

“Had John F. Kennedy been a CEO, he would have said, ‘Our mission is to become the international leader in the space industry through maximum team-centered innovation and strategically target aerospace initiatives.’ 

Fortunately, JFK was more intuitive than a modern-day CEO; he knew that opaque, abstract missions don’t captivate and inspire people. 

The moon mission was a classic case of a communicator’s dodging the Curse of Knowledge.  It was a brilliant and beautiful idea — a single idea that motivated the actions of millions of people for a decade.”

Adopt a beginner’s mind and re-create your listener’s mind.

Key Take Aways

Here are my key take aways:

  • Be aware that knowledge can curse you.  The Curse of Knowledge is the problem where your knowledge "curses" you and it’s difficult to re-create your listener’s state of mind.
  • Simplify your points.  Keep your ideas simple and use stories.
  • Know the six principles to help you get past the curse of knowledge.  Dodge the curse of knowledge by using the Six Principles of Sticky Ideas.

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      1. I love the CEO/ JFK example, and I love using simple words, but – especially in business – I always worry that if I don’t use big words, I will nit be taken seriously.

      2. In a business scenario, I find it refreshing when folks speak simply, and I focus more on their intent than the words.

        I do know some professional circles and academicia where it seems like it’s more about vocabulary than sharing ideas. I tend to avoid those circles.

      3. Beauty of JFK example lies in its simplicity. It transpires a clear yet effective goal that can be measured going forward. Great article.

      4. Thanks Shilpan

        It really has me thinking how I can turn some of my projects into simple stories that stick.

      5. Hi J.D.,

        Reading this great post reminded me of how I can use the six principals in my blog posts.

        Hmmm, I’ll have to work on that.

      6. Hey Barbara

        I think you actually do this rather well. You share your short stories and they stick.

        I think they’re good reminders, as long as they don’t slow you down, since I already think you’re on track.

      Comments are closed.