Are you Cursed by Knowledge?

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It’s a tough question.

Mostly because you probably don’t even know you’re cursed. Psychologists and behavioral economists who study this phenomenon find the more of an expert you become in your field, the more likely you are to be cursed by your own knowledge. That is, you don’t know what it’s like NOT to know what you know. This has HUGE implications in our communications. We end up communicating to clients, internal team members, and even our kids in a language they can’t comprehend and then wonder why our product doesn’t sell, that project doesn’t move forward and why our kids just won’t patiently wait when we ask them to. According to Chip and Dan Heath, The Curse of Knowledge is the villain to all things sticky – including your messages.

Tamer Osman, CEO of RGlobe was a participant in our August Decker Made to Stick Messaging program. He noted that throughout his career it has been challenging to create messages that resonate and have a lasting impression on customers. “I’ve struggled with pinpointing the best approach to delivering complex messages to any type of audience in the most simple, yet effective way.”

Here’s an executive who has spent his career managing account and strategic relationships with Cisco Systems, Sun Microsystems, Oracle, CA, Microsoft and many other leading high tech companies. Experienced, smart, entrepreneurial and, like many technology execs (and likely the other 5.9B people in the world), Tamer had the classic case of the Curse of Knowledge. Just how cursed was he? As part of the program, each participant gets to test this out first hand by giving their pitch to a group of other professionals right out of the gates. Here’s Tamer with his “Take One” message, pitching RGlobe:

Was the pitch a SUCCESs?

Using Chip and Dan Heath’s SUCCESs framework from Made to Stick, Tamer received peer feedback about the stickiness of his message. Did it have the elements of being Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, Story?

Tamer’s “Take One”

The biggest element missing here is that of concreteness. He talks about the process for leveraging a partner, streamlined platforms, and private collaborative networks. Those terms are common knowledge to Tamer – certainly, there’s a tune playing in his head that makes perfect sense to him. But to us, the listeners, it sounds like abstraction after abstraction and our minds start to blur. We have no concrete image of what the service offers.

You might be thinking, “He’s talking to techies. It’s concrete to them.” And yet, we too often make the wrong assumptions about what our listeners do or do not know (remember, we’re cursed!). In fact, one Oracle engineer in the program said, “I’m really technical but even I don’t understand what your company does.”

This is not to say that you can’t have technical terms and information. We’re not encouraging you to dumb it down. Instead, for any abstraction, think of a concrete example to support it. Even better, lead with the concrete example, and THEN reference the abstract term. The bonus is when you do this, you’re helping your technical audience spread the message further. And that could mean closing the deal if they take your oh-so-sticky message and sell it internally to senior management.

Here’s where it gets really good…check out Tamer’s “Take Two” pitch, delivered in the afternoon after applying the Decker Made to Stick principles throughout the day.

The Secret to SUCCESs

What SUCCESs factors stood out?

Concrete: Check! Tamer uses a fantastic set up that is targeted to a specific listener group. He’s provided a concrete image of the difficulty, and potential, of working effectively with partners. You can “see” it.

Simple: He’s added an analogy to help you instantly get the concept. “It’s as simple to use as Facebook, but it’s private and secure.”

Emotional: He’s getting to the pain points of the listener. Dealing with partners is complex and time-consuming. Houston, we have a problem.

After completing the program, Tamer said “I now have a new prospective on how to reach my audience by crafting the right message through their eyes and the confidence to know the difference between the right way and the wrong way.”

What now? How do you spot the Curse?

The first step: Sit back and think about your listeners (or readers). Now REALLY think about them and ask some questions: what’s important to them? Why would they be resistant? What do they know about you/your service?” Then and only then can you start crafting your message.

Next, have someone outside your immediate team, organization, or even industry to review your message – they’ll be able to spot the curse before you do.

Better yet, sign up for an upcoming Decker Made to Stick Messaging program: November 17th in NYC, or December 10th in SF. Hope to see you there!

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12 comments on “Are you Cursed by Knowledge?

  1. Mike Roberts – Thanks for your additional input. I’m a big fan of constructive feedback and continuous improvement and your comments are well taken. You did get it!
    Dan Heath – It’s my pleasure letting you use these videos. I’m thankful for having the opportunity to leverage the useful knowledge and techniques shared in your book and this course. Kudos to you and the Decker team!

  2. Great example of the curse in action. One of the best ways I’ve found to detect the curse is to give a practice presentation to a Toastmasters group and ask for a round-robin evaluation. When you have a diverse group of listeners give you an eval, the most amazing things come out. Jargon, unclear ideas, and communication faux pas are immediately exposed. Then it is helpful to ask the audience what one thing stood out in their minds after hearing the speech. I am almost always surprised by the answer to that question. If the answer isn’t what I’m looking for, it gives me a chance to change the message.

  3. This is fantastic. I teach a college Public Speaking class and can tell you “the curse of knowledge” starts early. We’re discussing audience analysis tonight and this is the perfect complement to the abstract demographics/know your audience conversation.

  4. Great teaching tool. Partnering with the Heath brothers is a stroke of genius. You both give so much practical information on presenting and leading. Using key concepts such as connecting with familiarity is invaluable when trying to get your message across. Keep Great tips coming!

  5. Superb.

    I work for a Silicon Valley company, and the first discussion is the soup du jour for most. Just a few hours later, and the change was not only refreshing, but I understand what he had meant … to ME.

  6. Wow!

    It’s always a challenge explaining to clients the downside of “the curse of knowledge.” My clients often assume audiences/prospects know as much as they do–and use jargon as shorthand, oblivious that are alienating (and boring) folks.

    Your “before and after” video makes a fantastic teaching tool. The second version was very concrete, specific and engaging, i.e.: sticky. I love the elements of storytelling that pulled us closer and made us want to keep listening.

  7. I am a huge fan of Made to Stick.

    Whilst I can see the great strides that Tamer has made in reducing jargon – I find it hard to compare a before film which does not seem to have been edited with an after that has.

    For your information Kelly I think you will find that the proof is not in the pudding. The proof of the pudding is in the eating – perhaps in this case the proof is in the editing – it’s hard to tell.

  8. TJ, you’re right! It’s also why my 5.5-year-old can explain how to play a game to my 4-year-old much better than I can!

    Mike, great next take at the pitch. And it points out that great messaging is indeed an iterative process. Rarely does someone nail all SIX SUCCESs principles in the first draft (or second or third for that matter).

    And Dan, thanks for your comments – reinforces that anyone can learn how to create sticky messages – and actually create them. The proof is in the pudding!

  9. Wow. It’s incredible to get to see the progress. Tamer, you did a heck of a job making that pitch more concrete — congrats! Thank you for letting us post these videos. And Kelly, he clearly had a good teacher!

  10. Actually, for even more clarity, make that final sentence “…RGlobe’s secure, social-media-style platform ultimately results in…”

  11. Excellent improvement. I get it after the second try. Here’s what I hear…

    “Think of RGlobe like a private Facebook. With all the people that will interact with your key accounts, wouldn’t it be great to KNOW that everyone is on the same page, to HEAR what everyone is saying, and to LEVERAGE that combined knowledge for your clients? Wouldn’t that ultimately make your clients happier with you and your organization? RGlobe makes that happen. Rather than customers hearing potentially conflicting messages, RGlobe ensures they hear CORROBORATIVE messages. Rather than multiple partners re-inventing the wheel, RGlobe creates a COLLECTIVE developmental process. By increasing teamwork, enhancing communications, and improving overall effectiveness for your clients, RGlobe ultimately results in a better bottom line on all your collaborative projects.”

    Did I get it? Thanks Tamer!

  12. Along those same lines, I have seen in my practice that non-native English-speaking business presenters often do an excellent job precisely because their vocabulary is smaller. They aren’t tempted to use as much jargon and buzz words because they don’t know them. Consequently, they are better understood by their audiences.