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The Curse Of Knowledge: The CXO Story Teller's Enemy #1

As a C Suiter, being a change and communication meister comes with the role, whether you like it or not! Have you encountered a situation where you have unveiled a massive campaign only to find your campaign objectives being marginally met after several rounds of vigorous head nods?

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As a C Suiter, being a change and communication meister comes with the role, whether you like it or not! Have you encountered a situation where you have unveiled a massive campaign only to find your campaign objectives being marginally met after several rounds of vigorous head nods? There could have been various reasons for the same -line loss, lack of frequency, fuzzy objectives etc. In today's distracted environment when prizzled has become a word in the dictionary (that feeling of being pissed when someone whips out a smart phone during your talk), attention is the currency with which people pay when they are absorbing your message! The ability to sell an idea effectively can make or break electoral success or influence organisational change 3 levels down.

One of the fundamental challenges in storytelling is called "The curse of knowledge" In 1990, there was a PhD student called Elizabeth Newton who performed this experiment, she assembled a group of people and they were classified as "Tappers" and "Listeners". The exercise was simple- the tappers were given 25 songs including some famous ones like "Happy birthday", the tappers were made to tap the tune and the listeners were supposed to guess the tune, out of the 120 tapped out songs, the % of accurate guesses was about 2.5% (3 out of 120). The fact that so few listeners could guess the tune was not the revelation! The doctorate was earned for exposing the following bias -Before the tappers were ready, they were asked to estimate their chances of success and the % that was expected was 50%, they were so confident of their success. This is the "curse of Knowledge". When they were tapping out the tunes; they could hear the same in their heads and were disappointed when the listeners could not get it. Today's leaders from all walks -Industry, Govt, Creative arts etc. is a Tapper who gets frustrated when his team of Listeners is not able to decipher the song he is tapping! when one learns something new, It is very difficult to look at the world with the same pair of eyes as someone who does not know.

Based on Chip and Dan Heath's seminal "SUCCESs" framework. Let's look at compiled wisdom of various fields, folklorists, psychologists, mythologists, ad men, anthropologists etc. How can we overcome the "curse of knowledge" and package our ideas more effectively?

The "SUCCESs" framework stands for Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, Story. The last s is only used to make a memorable mnemonic :

Simple or Finding the Core is the most essential ingredient in the secret sauce recipe for a sticky idea. The core of what should guide a Company is found in the "Mission Statement" -a North star of sorts that would act as a guiding beacon during moments of uncertainty and volatility. A similar statement of sorts can be found in the annals of the Armed forces. This is called the "Commander's Intent" which states the end objective of a mission without getting into the details. This skins everything else off the mission except the bare minimum information, this reduces clutter and forces everyone down the rank to prioritise.
For you to communicate an idea or a message, it would be a good idea to use this statement to begin with -

The single most important thing I must communicate with this idea/message is …………

If my audience does not get anything else from this message, they must get ……….

But, Life is rarely that simple! Like Mike Tyson's trainer- Cus D'Amato told him "everyone has a plan till they get punched in the face", similarly no military plan survives contact with the enemy and no enterprise initiative survives contact with the customer. The environment gets a vote in how we behave! The only evidence of the commanders Intent or the mission is evidence of some planning activity. So, the intent must be brutally stripped until its core is realised. There has be zero ambiguity about 5 w 's -who, what, when, where and why. I use a similar mantra for my coachees to fashion their long term behaviour with subordinates by asking themselves this question every time before they engage with a subordinate - "What can I do to ensure my subordinate leaves this conversation with confidence, clarity and motivation"?

In their Book, Buck up, Suck up and Come back up when you foul up: James Carville and Paul Begal recall Herb Kelleher's description of South West's Commander's Intent.

"I can teach you the secret to running this airline in 30 seconds. This is it: We are THE low -fare airline. Once you understand that fact, you can make any decision about the company's future as well as I do. Let's say, Tracey from marketing comes into your office. She says her surveys indicate that the passengers might enjoy a light entrée on the Houston to Las Vegas flight. All we offer is Peanuts, and she thinks a nice chicken ceaser salad would be popular. "What do you say"?

You say "Tracey, will adding the Chicken ceaser Salad make us The Low Fare airline from Houston to Las Vegas? Because, if it doesn't help us become the unchallenged low fare airline, we're not serving any damn chicken salad". Simple idea, but this idea has been guiding Southwest employees for more than 30 years now!

Closer to home, I found similar sentiments espoused during a chairman's speech by YC. Deveshwar of ITC where he points out - "A strategy can be successful only when everyone understands it clearly from the shop floor to the corner shops where you sell, and not limited to the hallowed precincts of the boardroom! Everyone has to readily grasp what the organisation is about and what it has set out to do"

Keeping it simple does not mean dumbing down, it means the exact opposite, some of the most profound messages have been conveyed as they have stuck to the core. With every story that you wish to tell, find the core first!

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Jay Kumar Hariharan

The author is an Executive Coach, Speaker and Deep Sea Diver. He is a graduate from International Coach Academy, Sydney. He provides coaching interventions to create transformational Leadership practices. For more read about the author visit

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