Three Tips You Can Use Today to Break the “Curse of Knowledge”

Have you been the new kid on the block, so to speak?

If so, you can probably relate to the dilemma we faced when we moved from Kansas to Central New Jersey four years ago. We needed to learn in only three days the ins and outs of attending a New Jersey public school. Our two daughters would be enrolling in an intermediate school and an elementary school.

So we went online. We visited the school district’s website.

This is what we saw:

Where do we navigate first?

The website is not designed for a novice to the New Jersey public school system.

Where’s the Parent’s Handbook? What will I find in the Parent Portal? Where do I find information about how to prepare for the first day of school? How do I know the information I find here is updated? Some of the text states “Updated on Sept. 15, 2010.”

I felt lost.

The website creators did not have me in mind. They were unaware what the customer experience would be for a profile like me: a new parent of the school, new to New Jersey, with two children.

Website creators assumed visitors will have the same level of understanding that the creators have. But we didn’t.

Chip and Dan Heath call this assumption the Curse of Knowledge. In their book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, the New York Times bestselling authors state this natural psychological tendency happens when we assume everyone has the same level of knowledge as we do.

“Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has ‘cursed’ us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind,” wrote Chip and Dan Heath.

Here are three ways business owners and marketing agency directors suffer from the Curse of Knowledge and how to combat it:

1. Curse of Knowledge Begins on the Home Page

Have you looked at your company’s home page lately? As marketing communicators, we’re well-versed in all things marketing, but what about our customer? What is their level of understanding of email marketing? Inbound marketing? Well-designed websites? Good quality content?

Surely they are not the experts, because they’re looking to hire expertise to solve their problems, right?

We get caught up in the frenzy of marketing-speak because we live and breathe the subject every day. And we love it. Maybe our customers do too. But maybe they don’t.

Take, for example, the Readington Public School district website. Does the home page have the right content for the person seeking information on the site?

How do the school’s designers avoid the Curse of Knowledge on the home page? First, they can delve into what the visitor wants to know.

The principles can work for your business too.

Lee LeFever, author of The Art of Explanation, shared his wisdom of overcoming the Curse of Knowledge on the StoryBrand podcast. LeFever said if you want to encourage visitors to stop and take notice, make sure your website can answer these key questions quickly and clearly:

  • What do we offer?
  • What does it do?
  • Who is it for?

And then, the one too important to miss:

  • What should this matter to our customers?

The school’s website could have a button in the upper right hand corner labeled “New to the school?” and link to the key points a parent like me would like to know. Maybe offer a downloadable ebook to answer the question, “What you need to know before the first day of school.”

I think the content on the school district’s home page can ask who the visitor is and what he is looking for. Then show a simple menu on the home page allowing the visitor to choose where he would like to go for more information: Parent, New Parent, Staff, Student, and Visitor.

2. Get to the Core Idea – Asking the Three Whys

Have you seen websites that cram tons of data on one page? Too much information may be overwhelming the customer. Just because the visitors can scroll down a website page, doesn’t mean they will be motivated to scan bunches of text to find the answers they’re seeking. They don’t want to go on a treasure hunt when they click on your website.

Take this email, for example.

By first glance, don’t you just want to stop scanning this email and press delete? The wording is a mess. Wondering if this is an actual email?

Yes, it is real. My husband was the recipient. He then shared it with me. He knows I fancy viewing examples of marketing communications gone wrong.

Did anyone take ownership of crafting this confusing email? It doesn’t appear so.

The message is baffling. I don’t know who should attend the Lift and Handling Expo. What’s a Crane and Rigging Rodeo? And why should I care? There are several calls to action, too many ideas, too much information, and the same message shouted repeatedly. The content talks about features, but what about the benefits?

Is anybody going to take the time to decipher the message? No. He will do what any time-pressed executive will do. Hit delete.

The email is vexed with the Curse of Knowledge. How do we bypass it? We need to simplify the message.

One suggestion is to apply the concept of Ask the Three Whys. (From Made to Stick.) The approach was originated by the Toyota Corporation by asking The Five Whys to get to the root cause of a problem on the automotive assembly line.

So what is better: Asking three whys or five whys? The number of whys does not matter. It’s whatever number of whys to help you uncover the main idea.

To get to the core idea of this email, use Ask the Three Whys?

  • Why am I sending this email to this customer?
  • Because I want him to attend the North American Crane Bureau Lift and Handling Expo.
  • Why is the conference important for him to attend?
  • Because he will be among the first group to see a demonstration of the latest safety equipment to reduce lost time accidents by 30%.

You may need to continue to ask Why? to arrive at the main point.

  • Why would decreasing lost time accidents by 30% matter to him?
  • Because the latest survey of heavy equipment managers states their biggest pain point is too many lost time accidents, which results in higher workers’ compensation and greater employee absenteeism.

Curious to dig deeper in The Five Whys process? Eric Ries, an entrepreneur and author of the New York Times bestseller, The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Business, explains how to use The Five Whys to find the human cause of technical problems here.

3. Remove the Jargon and Use Your Customer’s Language

Both the school’s website and the email show another symptom of the Curse of Knowledge: We’re flaunting our expert vocabulary and not expressing ideas in the language our customers use.

Donald Miller of StoryBrand leads workshops for business owners to clarify their marketing message. He notices most corporate marketing materials use too much jargon.

“Each of our clients assumed their customers knew more than they did,” he said.

How we are tempted to tell everything, right away, in words we use at our higher level of understanding. We easily lose awareness that we’re talking like an expert, and putting our readers to sleep.

Chip and Dan Heath suggest we “should be giving you (the reader) just enough information to be useful, then a little more, then a little more.”

They recommend using concrete language when you are introducing people to new concepts because it helps build a universal language between an expert and a novice.

“If you’ve got to teach an idea to a room full of people, and you aren’t certain what they know, concreteness is the only safe language,” the Heath brothers wrote. “Speaking concretely is the only way to ensure that our idea will mean the same thing to everyone in our audience.”

Concrete language is words in human actions and that we know through our senses. They are individual, unique, and memorable.

“Naturally sticky ideas are stuffed full of concrete words and images.“ Chip and Dan Heath

What tip(s) have worked for you to overcome the Curse of Knowledge?

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