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Knowledge Is Power….Or A Curse?

Insights November 5, 2013

Were you the kid in school who voluntarily sat alone at lunch with the latest page-turner? Ever beg your parents to turn the closet under the stairs into your personal reading nook so you could feel one step closer to receiving your Hogwarts acceptance letter? Us too. At Terakeet we have a passion for reading that goes beyond the day-to-day work responsibilities of someone in search optimization and web marketing, so much so that we have created our very own Terakeet Reading Group. Let me tell you why we believe taking a break from the computer screen (real paper with real words!) and meeting with coworkers (real face to face interaction!) to start a book club has not only been a fun way to collaborate and identify the nerdiest of the nerds (and most likely who will be picked last for our Terakeet dodgeball team) but how it has also provided an incubator for ideas.


Story Time

Across hundreds of cultural barriers and through centuries of history, there has been one method of communication that we seem to keep revisiting to captivate an audience: storytelling. Whether it be merely sharing an idea with a coworker, or pitching a new campaign idea to a client, we ultimately want to get people to act on our ideas. Though the end goals can be very different, the most effective way to drive any given call to action is to be able to tell your story, and tell it well.

The Experiment: Tappers and Listeners

What does this have to do with what we do at Terakeet and why is this an important takeaway? Let me explain a natural psychological tendency that all too often poses as our enemy when communicating, called the “Curse of Knowledge.” This theory was brought to the discussion by Chip and Dan Heath, authors of  “Made to Stick.”


The Curse of Knowledge is introduced by the Heath’s through an interesting study that may be familiar to those psychology-loving thinkers. Created in 1990, the study called ‘Tappers and Listeners’ was conducted by Stanford professor Elizabeth Newton, Ph.D.  Through this Dr. Newton studied a simple game where people were assigned one of two roles: a “tapper” or a “listener.” The tappers were provided with a list of well-known songs, and then selected one of those songs to tap out the rhythm to by knocking on the table for the listener. The goal of the listener, then, was to correctly identify the song based on the rhythm being tapped. Sound easy? It’s not. The results of the study revealed that of the 120+ songs that were tapped out, listeners were only able to identify 2.5 percent of the songs correctly…so 3 out of that 120. Why is it worth bringing up this simple and silly game? Consider the one factor I haven’t yet mentioned: Newton had asked the tappers, before they had done any tapping, to predict the odds of the listener correctly identifying the song. The over-confident tappers had predicted their odds were 50 percent. Why did they predict they would get their message across 1 time in 2, when in reality they would only succeed 1 time in 40? The Curse of Knowledge! Let the Heath brothers explain:


“The problem is that tappers have been given knowledge (the song title) that makes it impossible for them to imagine what it’s like to lack that knowledge. When they’re tapping, they can’t imagine what it’s like for the listeners to hear isolated taps rather than a song. This is the Curse of Knowledge. 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.” (pg.20)


This experiment is reenacted every day in our world of marketing. The tappers are the groups, brands, organizations, or individuals that rely on successful and ongoing communication in order to reach their target markets, yet they suffer from information imbalances (that they most likely aren’t even aware of – cursed!). They make the destructive assumption that the audiences they are trying to reach are approaching the situation with the same knowledge base, creating a futile barrier. These tappers desperately need a way to bridge the gap to their listeners. The solution? Marketing in a way that customers, or ‘listeners’, can not only hear but also understand in this digital universe.

The Heath brothers along with many others have provided us with thought provoking discussion and have enlightened our outlook on our own human-to-human interactions. As we continue to provide a unique way to effectively explain and reinforce your brand, we never stop thinking outside the box. You tap, we market, they listen.

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