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Avoid The Zoom Room Blank Stare Olympics

Psychologist Elizabeth Newton asked her Stanford University students to play a simple game.

Half of them were told they would be “tappers,” and their job was to tap the rhythm of one of few universally known songs, like “Happy Birthday.” The other half of the students were asked to be “listeners,” and their goal was to guess the song that was being tapped.

Newton asked the tappers to estimate how often the listeners would guess the song correctly. Hey, it's Happy Birthday, what's so hard about that? The tappers thought it would be about 50% of the time. It turned out the listeners guessed correctly only 3% of the time.

97% of the time they were clueless. Can you hear me now?!

Take a moment right now to try it out for yourself. Tap “Happy Birthday” on your desk or computer. When you tap it, do you hear the melody of the song in your head?

In this case, hearing the song in your head is called the curse of knowledge. We see this all the time with executive presenters. They “hear the melody” of their own message (quite clearly) in their heads oblivious to the reality that their audience was lost before the second slide.

I learned about the curse of knowledge and the tappers and listeners story from Chip and Dan Heath’s outstanding book called Made to Stick.

The whole idea behind the curse is that you do not know what it’s like not to know what you know. YOU DON'T KNOW ...WHAT IT'S LIKE... NOT TO KNOW... WHAT YOU KNOW. Give that thought a few seconds to settle.

Let’s say you have been putting in 30 hours a week on a single project for the past three months. In that time, you have surfed through various levels of understanding of your subject. Perhaps you have gone to bed at night confused about a nuance of the project, but the following day you have a breakthrough about that same point while trying to keep up with Emma Lovewell on the Peleton.

You have had time to investigate, question, absorb and reflect on all sides of the matter at hand.

When you fire up Zoom to share your project’s recommendations, it’s critical to TRY NOT TO HEAR “Happy Birthday” in your head as you explain things to an audience that hasn’t had the same benefit of time and reflection (and morning-after breakthroughs on the bike).

When people ask you to “Explain it to me like I’m a first-grader,” they mean explain it to them without the curse of knowledge.

Distill your message down to what's most important, make it easy to digest, and think carefully about the order in which you present the information.

It's critical to challenge yourself to curate OUT the stuff that you think is interesting but is not important to your audience. The goal is not to show how much you know but to help others gain clarity.

It takes practice and repetition to get good at this skill but your audience will love you for it. They may even award you with a nod or smile rather than that quizzical zoom look we dread.

Or is that just me? :-)

Originally published at and updated 1/14/22

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