Common knowledge? So what? Share it anyway.

Until recently, I’ve always used to beat myself up for not having anything interesting to share with the world. Looking around me, I saw all these cool people sharing their experiences and ideas through twitter, blog posts, screencasts, and podcasts.

Meanwhile, I had nothing.

Nothing interesting enough to share without feeling silly for being too obvious. Whenever I tried to come up with something I could write or make a screencast about, I couldn’t imagine people not knowing what I was about to say.

I remember thinking:

This is silly. It’s common knowledge; everybody surely knows this.

Except that’s not true.

Fewer people know what you know than you can imagine.

In 1990, Elizabeth Newton, a graduate student from Stanford, performed an experiment that would change the way we think about what other people know, or more precisely, what they don’t know.

She set people into two groups: “tappers” and “listeners.”

The tappers were tasked to pick a very well-known song (“Happy Birthday to You,” for example) and tap it on the table so that a person from the listener’s group could easily guess what the song was.

Before performing the experiment, Elizabeth asked the tappers to predict the rate of successful guesses they would get from their listeners. They predicted a 50% success rate. They thought at least half of the listeners will make a correct guess.

The actual results? 2.5%. Only 1 in 40 guessed the song. Twenty times fewer listeners guessed what the tappers considered to be a well-known song. Not 40, not 30, not even 10 – 2.5%.

The tappers were astounded. How could they get their prediction so wrong? How could anyone not know something so obvious?

It turns out that as a tapper since you already know the song you are tapping, you find it incredibly difficult to imagine other people not being able to guess it. Once you learn something, you move from the listener’s group to the tapper’s group, and you fail to recreate a listener’s mindset. You automatically assume most people already know what you know.

It’s the same with our fear of sharing what we know. It feels stupid, it feels like everybody already knows what we are about to say. But that’s rarely true. We don’t know what other people know or don’t know.

Next time, instead of deeming what you know as being common knowledge, force yourself to share it anyway. Fewer people know what you know than you can imagine.

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