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Free Thinking: Mind the knowledge gap


Martin Shovel argues that too much knowledge can can prove even more dangerous than a little when it comes to sharing ideas.

Why is it that the more we know about something, the harder we find it to explain what we know to other people? Research evidence suggests that our difficulties aren’t caused by the amount and complexity of our knowledge but by our inability to accurately judge just how much other people already know.

In other words, we make life difficult for ourselves because we’re not very good at working out what goes on in other people’s heads. And, because the contents of our own mind is the only reference point we have for understanding other people’s minds, we often struggle to appreciate just how different other minds can be from ours.

Tapping out the tune
This tendency was well illustrated in an experiment carried out by psychologist Elizabeth Newton in which she asked people to tap the rhythm of a well-known song to a listener and then estimate the likelihood of the listener identifying the song correctly. The results were startling. The tappers reckoned that listeners would correctly guess the tunes they tapped out at least 50% of the time. However, the experimental results showed that listeners were right only 3% of the time.

How did the tappers manage to get things so wrong? The answer becomes clearer when you contrast the tappers’ sonorous subjective experience with the relatively impoverished experience of the listener. The tappers ‘hear’ all the notes of the tune in their head. Maybe they also ‘hear’ a voice singing the words, and harmonies produced by an instrumental accompaniment.

While the tapper is experiencing this richness, all the listener hears is an apparently random series of taps and silences. The listeners have very little to go on – they can’t even be sure if the silence between taps is a sustained note or a musical rest. Not surprisingly, the tappers struggle to appreciate the listener’s predicament because for them the tapping is just a small part of a larger, meaningful experience. So when you give a presentation or explain a complex service or product, how can you find a way of seeing beyond the limits of your own perspective and avoid singing a song no-one else can hear?

How to bridge the knowledge gap
The solution is to create a metaphor that will make it easier for your listeners to make the journey from familiar territory (what they already know) to unfamiliar territory (what they don’t know). Thinking metaphorically forces us to take a step back from what we know and imagine seeing it from someone else’s point of view. This is because metaphors are created by answering the question, “what’s it like?”

However, when we know a lot about something we often find ourselves resisting this question because we’re worried that any answer to it will be simplistic and inaccurate. We are so in love with the detail and subtlety of what we know, we can’t stand the thought of misrepresenting it. When it comes to expertise, it’s often a case of all or nothing.

For example, there was a time when computers were the exclusive domain of experts who communicated with each other in the mysterious language of computer code. The great breakthrough in the design and popularity of the personal computer happened when the metaphor of the desktop replaced the barren landscape of the command line. Instead of being lost in an abstract world of code, the home user now found themselves in a familiar office environment surrounded by documents, paper folders, filing cabinets and wastepaper bins – a place where they could do business.

The desktop/office metaphor may have many inadequacies (for example, seeing a word processor as a typewriter wouldn’t lead a new user to look for a replace command) but without it, the computer revolution might never have happened.

Many computer experts doing innovative work today started life on the desktop and eventually burrowed their way down to the creative power of the code beneath it. Once we have a map of the unfamiliar territory and a feeling for it, we’re ready to revise our mental models and start making sense of the technical details. At this stage, we can hear the tune in all its glory – and we can even hum it ourselves.

* Martin Shovel is co-director of CreativityWorks, a learning consultancy that transforms people into more effective thinkers and communicators by developing their visual thinking abilities. Find out more by visiting

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