Hank Stroll, one of my first clients and a dear friend, would occasionally reply to my email with a chuckle telling me I’m doing what his wife does. He explained that his wife and I sometimes had a tendency to talk about something and he’d have no clue what we’re talking about. Like he entered the middle of a conversation.
“Talk to me like I don’t know anything,” he’d write.
I fell victim to the curse of knowledge. And it’s everywhere. Maybe even in your company’s content. It could be the website or content marketing stuff.
It’s more common than you think. An email newsletter columnist submitted an article about companies that made the “best of” list. Each contained a short overview of the company’s business.
Whew, boy. They all spoke the same language: marketing-speak.
I visited the companies’ websites for more information to help me rewrite them to stick with just the facts. It wasn’t surprising to see the overviews came from the website — mostly the Home or About pages. (Good thing making this “best of” list didn’t require effective content, eh?) It also didn’t surprise me that most of the content didn’t clearly communicate what they do for clients.
They all suffer from the same disease I did.
The curse of knowledge.
I believe the phrase first appeared in the October 1989 issue of The Journal of Political Economy. Here’s how authors Colin Camerer, George Lowenstein and Martin Weber of “The curse of knowledge in economic settings: An experimental analysis.” described it.
The curse of knowledge makes personal expertise seem more widely shared than it is, making it difficult for people to convey their expertise to others and reducing the apparent need (from the perspective of the better-informed individual) for such a transfer of knowledge.
They studied the impact of the curse of knowledge from an economic point of view. Chip Heath and Dan Health explained it from a business point of view in “Made to Stick.” I bet you’ve seen it or lived it.
Many sensible strategies fail to drive action because executives formulate them in sweeping, general language. “Achieving customer delight!” “Becoming the most efficient manufacturer!” “Unlocking shareholder value!” One explanation for executives’ love affair with vague strategy statements relates to a phenomenon called the curse of knowledge. Top executives have had years of immersion in the logic and conventions of business, so when they speak abstractly, they are simply summarizing the wealth of concrete data in their heads. But frontline employees, who aren’t privy to the underlying meaning, hear only opaque phrases. As a result, the strategies being touted don’t stick.
In other words, the people who wrote the content for these companies were stuck in their heads. It makes it harder to separate their knowledge from the knowledge — or lack thereof — of the people visiting their website. They knew what their company did. They forgot to consider what their target audience knows or didn’t know.
This wasn’t a simple problem of using jargon and abbreviations. It was a problem of explaining what they do to someone who had never heard of the company. All of these were business-to-business professional services companies. (Noticed I skipped using B2B or BtoB?)
Although I work with B2B clients, not everyone reading this knows what it means. Yes, it’s common to me. Nonetheless, I still remember when I read it for the first time — and I’d like to think I read a decent amount of business articles — I didn’t know what it meant. Not just the abbreviation, but also what it means to be a B2B company.
Another example. A fan of a client’s product advised not using certain terms to describe the client’s technical app for consumers. What he didn’t realize is that most of the client’s target audience know, need and use those terms. If we use the app fan’s suggested terms, people will never understand what the app does. And they’d never find the company because they wouldn’t use those search terms.
Simple test to see if your content suffers from the curse of knowledge:
Have a family member or a friend read it.
Yes, even if they’re not your target audience. They can tell you if it makes sense or not.
Thanks to Hank, I learned early on to think about what the reader may or may not know. That doesn’t mean I’m 100 percent cured of this disease. I don’t think I’ll ever be. It’s impossible to escape my own head. (Dagnabbit.)
What do you think of the bolded text? Or do you prefer headings? Personally, I prefer the latter. However, some folks say they prefer bolded sentences and phrases.