Is the Curse of Knowledge and Bad Vernacular Killing Your Sales and Marketing Success?

by Marcus Sheridan

Do your customers ever give you that ‘dumb’ look? You know, that look that Jackie Chan shares with Chris Tucker in this hilarious clip:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-twUCEfzrDk[/youtube]

I ask this question because they relate to an amusing experience the other day that was quite symbolic of the problem so many businesses, marketers, and sales persons are having all over the world this very minute regarding their communication.

To make a long story short, I contacted a business regarding the innovative topic of Geothermal Heating for swimming pools. I wanted to do a blog post for my pool business on this novel subject matter and asked the company if they would be interested. They said they would and this is what was sent back to me, word for word:

DX Geothermal, sometimes referred to as water less geothermal is the most efficient heating system available. The DX system uses copper tubing buried in the ground to which the systems refrigerant circulates thru. Because of this, the constant, renewable temperature of the earth being directly transferred to the system’s refrigerant gives us constant and greater efficiencies that are not obtainable with traditional air sourced or water sourced heat pumps. Gas fired systems are only 80 to 90% efficient, air sourced heat pumps are about 200 % efficient provided the outdoor air temperature is high enough to draw heat from and water sourced geothermal systems approach 300% but the added cost of operating a ground water pump and the maintenance of the ground water side detracts from this.  DX heating efficiencies range between 400 to 600% and remain constant regardless of outdoor temperature and weather conditions. Another advantage is, unlike water sourced systems that require deep wells or large areas of closed loop tubing buried in the ground. We can install systems with in as little as a 12 by 12 ft. space for drilling. These systems are virtually maintenance free as there is no outdoor coil that requires annual cleaning and no water circuit on the ground end to be maintained. With a properly sized system, we can maintain the desired pool temperature year round without the use of any other source of heat. The system life is 20 to 30 years as well.

Huh?? Say What??

Ok, if you were able to make it through that without your head spinning in 400 different directions, then you’re clearly much smarter than me. Now granted, maybe the nice gentleman that sent this didn’t fully understand what I was asking for, but if I’m being realistic this guy is just suffering from the same communication disorder that so many business people and sales persons around the world make every day when discussing their products. This disease has become known as:

The Curse of Knowledge

I read a great excerpt on this lately from Yihong Ding over at Semantic Focus discussing this very interesting topic. The article states:

There are many examples of the Curse of Knowledge in the book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, written by Chip and Dan Heath. One famous example is the experiment of “tappers” and “listeners.” A tapper heard a well-known song, such as “Happy Birthday to You” or “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and then he tapped out the rhythm to a listener by knocking on a table. After hearing the rhythm being tapped, a listener was then asked to tell the name of the song. According to the book, after repeating this experiment many times the tappers believed that the listeners should have correctly guessed at least 50% of their tapped songs. In reality, however, the listeners only guessed 2.5% songs correctly.

This is a fantastic demonstration of the Curse of Knowledge. The tappers knew the song when they were tapping (so they were like experts), while the listeners knew nothing prior to hearing the tapping (so they were like laymen). The tappers had failed to deliver what they believed to be easy to the listeners. It was the Curse of Knowledge that produced the significant gap between 50% and 2.5%. When we think that we have succeeded in explaining our knowledge, we in fact did not.

Every field, no matter what its category, has its own vernacular and ‘knowledge’. And the people in that field, all too often, lose touch with reality in terms of their ability to discuss their products, services, job descriptions, etc with other people. They just naturally assume everyone else knows what the heck they are talking about, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

Computer Nerds Just Don’t Get It

This is especially true in technical fields like the internet. My goodness, some computer nerds suffer from the curse of knowledge so much that they’ve almost reached the point of speaking a completely different language. It can be crazy in some cases. To give you an example, I did a local search of a company that offers computer services in my area. Under the ‘services’ section of their company website, they offer the following (again, word for word):

  • Securing Infrastructure
  • Research, Design, and Implement Technology to increase efficiency and security
  • Provide repair services for current Technology on a monthly maintenance fee or incident basis
  • Ability to offer remote support services to ensure your Infrastructure stays optimized
  • Pre-wire new or existing business construction for current and future Technology growth
  • Proactive System Management
  • Standardization and Optimization of business Infrastructure
  • Server build, support, and implementation
  • Networking Implementation

Now I know many of you reading this will think that such phrases make plenty of sense. But for 90% of the prospects and business owners (at least in my rural area of Virginia) that browse over this website, they really won’t have a clue as to what it’s saying. In fact, I visited three more local websites in my area to find they all suffered from the exact same problem.

So the core of this article is this: Are you suffering from ‘The Curse of Knowledge’? Are you speaking and communicating to others (your customers) in such a way that they clearly understand you? Or are you making the terrible assumption that they share your knowledge, your vernacular, and your way of thinking?

Overcome and Succeed

If you can overcome this problem, I can guarantee that it will put you at the top of your field in terms of communicative abilities. So take pride in your abilities to be understood. Take pride in your simplistic, succinct, and informative writing and speech. Take pride in knowing that because you choose to explain things in a manner for all to understand that you are able to have great influence and success.

Thoughts on ‘The Curse of Knowledge?’ How have you been able to overcome this problem? As always, your thoughts and comments are very much appreciated below.

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