The curse of knowledge?

20 08 2010

But knowledge is power, right? How can it be a curse? The answer, is when it prevents simplicity, which is key for lawyers in both their professional practice and their business development.

The partner at Scratchit & Co was not worried by the curse of knowledge

The inspiration for this post came from an intriguing little book called “Made to stick” by Chip and Dan Heath. The book is about why some ideas stick, and get adopted, while others are easily forgotten. Which ideas are understood and change behaviour, and which fall by the wayside. The range of topics to which the principles can be applied are huge, but strange though it may seem to my legal readership, it doesn’t directly deal with the practice of law in any detail. However, whether you are trying to persuade a judge or jury of the strength of your argument (think “idea”!) or explaining your suggested way of structuring a deal (another idea!) to your client, many of the principles in the book can be usefully applied.

The key characteristics of sticky ideas are that they should be simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional and use stories (acronym “SUCCES”), but it is simplicity that I want to focus on here. I particularly liked the idea of a relentless focus on prioritising and getting to the core of the idea. The Heaths  mention a lawyer making ten key points to the jury, and the jury not remembering any of them. With a piece of advice, what is the core message that you want your client to take away? Could you make it clearer or more central (or both)? Chip and Dan make the point that simple doesn’t necessarily mean short; they are not advocating empty soundbites. Rather, to make an idea stick you must be very, very clear on what the message is, and communicate that with clarity.

The curse of knowledge is investigated  when we try to understand why this simplicity is actually quite difficult. The idea is that the more knowledge you have about a particular subject, the more difficult it is to imagine what it is like not to know about that topic. Hence for a lawyer advising a client on intellectual property, a hugely experienced, “rocket science” type partner may have more difficulty than a more junior associate in communicating the basic issue in a way that is easy to understand. Now of course, communication skills play a big part in this too, but I think for lawyers (whether in practice or inhouse) considering the possible impact of the curse of knowledge is a useful discipline.

At more junior levels of practice, a variation of this exercise can also help test your understanding of a subject. Try taking a legal concept or argument, and try explaining it to someone with no knowledge of the area (particularly if you role play and the subject can ask simple questions to clarify things), and it will give you a good feel of how well you really know the area. I had a fascinating conversation about 5 years ago when a phd friend of mine explained quantum physics to me. The light bulb flashed on and I was amazed I could grasp the concept so quickly. In my excitement I rushed to discuss the topic with a second friend later in the day, and the simple question he asked collapsed my pseudo-understanding like a house of cards, and I realised I didn’t grasp the topic at all.

So, the concept of simplicity of message can help with client communication, but what does it mean for business development? Firstly, in terms of communicating with a crowded, competitive marketplace, where attention is at a premium, to make your message stick, it needs to be simple. Certainly when I have had law firms selling to me when I’ve been in-house, I have been on the end of messages about firms, teams and services that have been less than clear, and none of them stuck.

The complexity may be the result of some detailed planning and analysis, but ultimately at some point before the message reaches the market, it needs simplifying. If it is a product or service, it needs a clear (one sentence?) value proposition. If it is a team or firm, can you sum up the core reason to engage them in a simple message? Better yet, make it memorable without being trite?

Want some more ideas? You could do worse than pick up the Heath’s book. It’s not a five minute read, and it will take some thought as to how best to apply the ideas to the legal environment, but if it makes your advice or your business development messaging stickier, I suspect it will pay the cover price pretty quickly…..



3 responses

23 08 2010
Oliver Drennan

Blaise Paschal: “Sorry for such a long letter; I didn’t have time to write a short one”. No doubt overly-quoted, but a similar theme. Analyse and think around the topic of course, but then synthesise and prioritise before you (a) open your mouth or (b) put pen to paper(finger to keyboard).

23 08 2010

That’s a great quote. When I did my litigation seat as a trainee I worked with a partner who believed strongly that no letter should be more than one side in length. There were times when protocol dictated that you needed more than this, but trying to make sure every draft met this expectation was good discipline and really made me think about what I was writing. Thanks for the comment.

2 04 2011
Mike Ricard

I’m surprised Twitter hasn’t been mentioned so far in confunction with synthesising, prioritising and simplifying the message. Mark, I know you use Twitter effectively, and more and more people everywhere are doing so too. If anything can help lawyers distill an essential message simply and cogently it is the practice of microblogging. I’ve gone beyond my 140 character quota, so ’nuff said.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: