Whether you’re selling a product, message, or service, your knowledge might be killing it. I’m the director of marketing for a software company. We have advertised the same way, with the same message, for years. But because of new competition, we decided to present a more compelling and unexpected message.
A company-wide meeting was coming up, so we decided to test two ads on our employees. They were decidedly different ads—one was safe and traditional while the other was playful and provocative. We wanted to see which ad was more compelling. I was sure the hipster ad would be the winner, hands down.
But the results spoke otherwise. It was almost a tie, 16 to 14. I was shocked. Boring and predictable almost beat sleek and sexy. The nursing home almost beat the sorority. What on earth happened here?
It was the Curse of Knowledge. This concept is discussed by Chip and Dan Heath in their book, “Made to Stick.” They write, “Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has ‘cursed’ us.” This newfound knowledge now pings around in our brain, affecting everything. We are changed and can’t go back.
My coworkers couldn’t overcome the knowledge of how our company had previously advertised. They were trained in our old, steady message. And because they were trained, they couldn’t accept a new way, even if the new way was better.
(No offense to my coworkers. The curse of knowledge is as old as humanity. Remember the Tree from which the first man and woman ate? The Tree of Knowledge. You know how that ended up.)
You see the curse operating in people who have mastered certain subjects. Perhaps a man from a mining town goes to college and, against the odds, majors in poetry. After a few years, he returns home and meets his old friends for a drink. All this time, they’ve been mining while he’s been studying poetry. Do you think they’ll connect easily?
He’s been changed by color and emotion, verse and meter. He’s read the greats, Donne and Dickinson, Shakespeare and Eliot. He’s labored for days to master 14 lines, a sonnet. And his friends, they’ve been doing the same dank dark for years. There will be a language gap, wouldn’t you say? A language gap due to a knowledge gap.
But the conversation doesn’t have to end. Perhaps the man can offer value to his friends. Mines could use come color, and darkness some light. They could benefit from his outlook on life. But first they have to get past their differences.
Herein lies the conundrum. Your knowledge is a good thing. It gives you the edge. The reason you have a product, message, or service is because you have knowledge that others need. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t have value to offer. Your customers seek you out because there is a lack in their lives. Some blaring deficiency, inability, or struggle is driving them to seek answers. So they find you.
But just because they find you doesn’t mean you’ve closed the deal. Your knowledge can still kill it. You have to speak their language. Our tendency when we know something is to spout lofty talk and speak abstractly. We go deep. But the customer isn’t looking for deep, he’s looking for shallow and practical. What’s going to fix his pain? He doesn’t care about iambic pentameter and haiku. He just wants to survive.
We also skip to the end too quickly. We’ve been transformed by the knowledge we possess, and want others to change, too. So we say the punch line before setting up the story. We forget that we’ve walked 100 miles to get there, and expect others to be at mile 100 from the start. But they’re not. Transformation is a process; pain comes before healing. Eventually poetry might fill the mine, but first start with a two-line rhyme.
Here are three suggestions to help you avoid knowledge-killing your product, message, or service:
1. Remember your life before you attained your particular knowledge.
You didn’t always know what you know. Revisit where you came from. What circumstances led you to seek change? What language did you use then? What pains were you trying to solve? This will keep you humble.
2. Communicate transformation in steps.
Most likely you baby-stepped from where you came. And change will come in baby steps for your customer. Speak in language appropriate for the stage the customer is at. Start with the pain, and move through the steps. This will hold out hope in an attainable manner.
3. Interact with your customers often.
The deeper you go, the easier to lose touch with those who aren’t there yet. So connect with your customers. Dialog with them, converse, become friends. This will tie you to your audience.
You can overcome the curse of knowledge so your product, service, or message can live…and give life to others. But soft!