Is the Curse of Knowledge Ruining Your Copywriting Efforts?

You know that feeling of being so close to your business that you struggle to explain it to somebody else?

I do. In fact, it’s one of my biggest challenges in attracting new clients.

The problem is: how do we communicate our true value clearly and effectively when we have all this information swimming around in our heads? It’s almost like we know TOO MUCH about our business. Where to start in explaining it to someone else? What are the important elements to get across, and what’s only important and interesting to ourselves?

We end up boiling down what we do into a few simple terms that WE understand, but the person we’re speaking to just looks at us blankly.

We sometimes refer to this as “not being able to see the forest for the trees”, or “needing a fresh set of eyes” to see something clearly.

The truth is, this problem is caused by a phenomenon known as the curse of knowledge. It stops us from being able to clearly communicate our true value to our ideal clients and customers.

In this article I’ll explain why the curse of knowledge is one of the biggest challenges in marketing, and how to overcome it.

But first, credit where it’s due. The curse of knowledge is a well known phenomenon that’s been studied for many years. The term was coined by composer Robin Hogarth. Perhaps the best-known source for examining the curse of knowledge from a modern marketing perspective are brothers Chip and Dan Heath, who talk about it in their book Made to Stick.

What is the curse of knowledge?

Put simply, it’s a lapse in communication caused by the “transmitter” (the person doing the telling) having a skewed understanding of how much the “receiver” already understands.

A simple example of this is an experiment conducted in 1990 by psychology academic Elizabeth Newton. Newton took two groups of people and made one group the transmitters and the other group the receivers. The transmitters’ job was to tap out a rhythm to some well known tunes. The receivers’ job was to guess the tune. The interesting part is that the transmitters were asked how many of the receivers would be able to guess the tune. The average guess was 50%. In reality, however, only 2.5% of receivers were able to guess the tune being tapped out. That means the transmitters’ predictions of being understood were unrealistically inflated by 20 times!

We all do this all the time. We assume the people with whom we’re communicating not only see the world in the same way we do, but have a similar level of knowledge to us. Further, we make a whole lot of assumptions about what’s important to others. We think that what we find important about our product or service is what others will also find important.

But the truth is very different. Most people are on a much lower level of understanding than you about the things you understand well. After all, there is a lot about this world to understand. We can’t all know a lot about a lot of things.

So why should your business be any different? You might know what you do and how you do it, but someone arriving on your website or reading your brochure for the first time almost certainly doesn’t.

One of my pet hates is home pages that don’t do a good job of articulating what a business actually does.

home page example

As a copywriter, I’m in a unique position in that companies often hand me responsibility to communicate their value to others through writing. In a way, I’m very lucky. This part of my job is really easy precisely because I don’t suffer from this curse of knowledge about someone else’s business that I’ve only just learned about. I can see what’s important about the business and what the main value proposition is because I’m an outsider. Just like their ideal client or customer.

In fact, the longer I spend on a project, the harder this becomes, and I have to be consciously aware of the curse of knowledge beginning to creep up for fear of losing sight of what’s important.

How can we overcome the curse of knowledge in our marketing?

I’m not saying you should rush out and hire a copywriter to help you overcome this challenge. Just being aware of the curse of knowledge will take you a long way down the path to overcoming it. But there are a couple of things you can keep in mind to combat the curse of knowledge:

The first way is through stories. As Chip and Dan Heath point out in this article for HBR:

Stories, too, work particularly well in dodging the curse of knowledge, because they force us to use concrete language. … Stories [are] tangible demonstrations of [a] company’s strategic aim.

We all relate to the world through stories. It’s much easier to arrange facts and values in a narrative than in a list or summary format. Stories make it easier for the teller to communicate just as they make it easier for the listener to understand. Your business story can focus on what you do and how you do it, which will in turn keep you true to what’s important to others.

twitter screenshot

Another way you can overcome the curse of knowledge is to put yourself in the shoes of someone who has never even heard of your type of business. How would you explain what you do to a child? If an 11-year-old can’t understand what you do then it’s probably being expressed in a way that’s too complicated and needs to be simplified.

How has the curse of knowledge affected your marketing? Share your experiences in the comments section below.

About the writer: Damien Elsing

Damien Elsing profile picDamien Elsing is an Australian freelance copywriter and content marketer. He helps all sized businesses from multinational brands, not for profits, agencies, and SMEs with web and print copywriting and content marketing strategies that work

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