He wrote the bright orange book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On, yet the mistake he shared on My Bad was not considering his audience. Right now, you’re probably thinking, what the heck? I mean, the guy wrote a New York Times Bestseller called Contagious. Am I really buying that he didn’t know what his readers wanted? “He knows more about what makes information ‘go viral’ than anyone in the world,” said Harvard professor, Daniel Gilbert.
So, what happened? He admitted, his first book Contagious did quite well. His second, Invisible Influence, not as well. Even though he believed his second book was better written. But there was a major difference between the two books. Contagious had a clear audience and Invisible Influence didn’t.
Jonah spoke about the curse of knowledge and how it is easy to fall victim to this. He often lectures about the curse of knowledge and yet when it came to writing his second book, he was guilty. During the interview, Jonah quickly explained the curse of knowledge.
There’s a great to test this curse of knowledge. It’s called the Tapper Test.A number of years ago, some scientists took a group of people and they split them up into two groups. One group was tappers and one group was listeners. The tappers were asked to tap out a song and each tapper was paired with one listener. And the listeners were asked to listen to that song being tapped out on the table and guess what it was. The tappers were asked to say how easy do you think it is for the listener and the listener was asked to see how easy it actually was. Well the tappers thought it was super easy, right? Their tapping out a song on the table. They hear it. They know exactly what it is. The listeners are sitting there going, I have no idea what you are talking about.
I became a listener during the interview. He tapped Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” on the microphone. I had no clue. And that was the point. Jonah explained that “too often we are the tappers. We hear all of the nuances and the details while the listener doesn’t.”
By most of our standards, Jonah’ second book, Invisible Influence, did quite well. But, as Jonah mentioned in the interview, it did not do nearly as well as his first book, Contagious. As mentioned, Jonah believed that the curse of knowledge may have had something to do with this. He shared a story that further explained what he meant. Colleagues of his shared with him how much they enjoy team-teaching an introductory core psychology course each year. Jonah responded:
Oh, that’s really neat. So you get the expert to teach what their really good at. You get the Developmental Psychologist to teach Developmental Psychology and the Social Psychologist to teach Social Psychology. They said no actually we do the exact opposite. We have the Social Psychologist teach the Developmental day and the Cognitive Psychologist teach the Social day. We have people teach what they’re not an expert at. Because if you’re such an expert on something sometimes you’re so close to it, in the weed that you end up focusing on stuff that listeners don’t really get.
As the interview ended, I wanted to find out from Jonah how we can avoid making the same mistake he did. How do we make sure that we always consider our audience, our students, our staff? He is someone who speaks to a wide variety of audiences, lectures to some of the sharpest minds in the world and as a faculty member of Wharton, is a member of a highly-esteemed staff.
What was his advice?
His answer was simple. Yet, we rarely do this. Or, if we do, we do it hesitantly. Jonah believed that we must find a way to get feedback. And he emphasized, that we must get honest feedback. He believes the best way to get brutal honesty is to allow people to give feedback anonymously. Too often people will “lie to our face because they want us to feel good.” And Jonah believes that feeling good about ourselves is important. But if we want to get better, we need brutal honesty.
If we are genuine about improving then we need this type of feedback, as difficult as it may be to hear. I’ve been on both ends. It’s not easy to give and it’s not easy to receive. But it’s how we get better. We work too hard, to skip this crucial step in the improvement cycle. If we really want to get better, then it’s time we start asking for better and more honest feedback.
If a New York Times Bestselling author can receive it, then I’m pretty sure we can too.