Little boy shouting into a microphone.

Do You Hear What I See? Communication and the Curse of Knowledge

Do you hear what I hear? Cue Christmas music. I think sometimes when we aren’t understood, we think it’s a matter of saying the same thing, only louder. It’s as if saying something slower and louder breaks down communication barriers. Maybe we should be asking a different question, “Do you see what I see?” In our minds, we see the vision and hear the story well, but when we share it, the other person just doesn’t seem to get it. What’s wrong with these people?!

If you have ever tried to point out a friend in a crowd of people, you’ve probably found yourself saying, “She’s right there in the orange shirt. Can’t you see her?” Meanwhile, your friend is diligently peering into the sea of people in the wrong direction. Part of the problem is the curse of knowledge. You can’t unknow where the friend is, so it is hard to understand why your neighbor cannot see her.

In the Originals, Adam Grant tells the story of the Stanford Happy Birthday study. In the study one subject, the tapper, is told to tap the song Happy Birthday, and another subject, the listener, is directed to guess the song that was tapped. The tappers estimated that the listener would correctly guess the song nearly half the time. In reality, the song was only correctly guessed a little over 2 percent of the time. The tapper heard the song just fine, why didn’t the listener?

In the Chip Heath’s HBR article, he explains: “Our knowledge has cursed us. We have difficulty sharing it with others, because we can’t readily re-create their state of mind.” Instead, we have to give landmarks, share the same context, and provide detail within a narrower frame to be on the same page. So, no matter how loud you shout, jump up and down, or point like a crazed lunatic into the crowd, until you understand where your neighbor is looking and what they are seeing, it is nearly impossible for them to see what, or who in this case, you see.

Imagine these two versions of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I have a Dream speech.” Imagine if you heard it this way:

All men are created equal. injustice and oppression, should be transformed into freedom and justice. Children should not be judged by the color of their skin. Black and white should join hands.

Now, what if instead, it read like this:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” – one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”

Many of us are guilty of providing abstract guidance similar to the first example but expecting action. The I have a Dream speech was only supposed to be a four-minute speech; MLK very well could have been succinct and abstract as indicated in the first version. Instead, it ran 17 minutes. The rich weaving of this story gives me chill bumps every time I hear it. He carefully paints a specific picture of the future with concrete, rich detail.

As an interesting side note, the actual dream language was not originally in King’s speech. It was only when one of his friends shouted: “tell ‘em about the dream” that King improvised one of the most memorable speeches in recent history.

So let me ask, do you see what he sees? Often when we communicate, we are talking about the unknown, uncreated future. Without a picture of exactly what it looks like, it is tough for someone to understand. It takes, sometimes, excruciating detail to tell the story, and most of us stop short and throw our hands up in frustration before being understood. Then we blame the other person for not getting it.

Whether talking about MLK’s speech, the Happy Birthday song, or pointing out the acquaintance in the crowd, effective communication must answer one specific question, “is it understood?” I do not believe that the communication can be understood until it answers the following questions:

  1. Who is my audience (and what do they already know)?
  2. Why does this matter to the other person?
  3. What is the context?
  4. How do you precisely frame the information?
  5. Is it concrete?
  6. Can you tell it in a story?
  7. Has the other person understood?

I’ve found myself in situations too often where I was blaming someone else for not understanding and failing to act when I had neglected to overcome the curse of knowledge. 90% of the time failed communication is on the part of the communicator, not the listener. People say that we are “all in sales.” Perhaps that’s true, but I can say with confidence that we are all in communication, and it is undoubtedly a continual practice.

Jeremy Floyd

Jeremy Floyd is the President at FUNYL Commerce. Formerly, he was the CEO and President of Lirio, Bluegill Creative, a marketing and communications firm in Knoxville, Tennessee. In addition to managing the digital strategies, Floyd was an adjunct professor for the University of Tennessee Chattanooga MBA program teaching digital strategies and social media. Floyd blogs at and tweets under the name @jfloyd. Jeremy is licensed to practice law in the State of Tennessee and holds a law degree from the University of Tennessee College of Law and a Bachelor of Arts degree from MTSU in English and Philosophy.

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