11.01.2011

The Curse of Knowledge

One of the toughest obstacles to effective communication, whether writing or speaking, is connecting to your audience. Many experts will tell you that the key to this connection is to place yourself in the mindset of the audience. The problem with this solution is that once you've become an expert at something, it's hard to put yourself in the shoes of someone who doesn't have your knowledge. To put it simply, when you know something, it becomes difficult to imagine not knowing it. Coined the "curse of knowledge" in a 1989 paper in The Journal of Political Economy, this concept is essential to those in the business world, especially marketing professionals, since it directly influences the way you convey your product, service or idea to the masses. Basically, it is a lot more difficult to put things in "layman's terms" than one might think.

Elizabeth Newton conducted an experiment on the curse of knowledge while working on her psychology doctorate at Stanford University in 1990. She provided one set of people, called “tappers,” a list of commonly known songs from which to choose. The were told to tap their knuckles on a tabletop to the rhythm of the chosen tune. A second set of people, called “listeners,” were asked to name the songs. Before the experiment began, the tappers were asked how often they believed that the listeners would name the songs correctly. On average, the tappers expected listeners to guess correctly about 50% of the time. However, listeners guessed only 3 of 120 songs - a miniscule 2.5%. The tappers couldn't understand why the listeners weren't able to hear the song since the tune was so clear in their own minds.

This experiment illustrates the inherent problem with having more information than the person with whom you are trying to communicate. As marketers, we are often immersed in our company's (or client's) product line or service offerings day in and day out. You are familiar with the technical terms, industry jargon, acronyms and fundamental concepts of your industry. However, the consumers you are trying to reach are uninitiated in the intricacies of your business. When you try to market to them, you often forget this discrepancy and fill your ads, website or brochure with high-level language that may impress your peers but goes over the head of your target market.

Chip & Dan Heath described this concept very well in their 2007 book “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die”. In addition to being a hindrance to effective marketing, the book explains how the curse of knowledge can also hinder the ability of company leaders to convey ideas to their employees, customers or stakeholders. Since C-level executives and other thought-leaders often use lofty or technical verbiage in their speeches or corporate communications, audiences can have a difficult time understanding their message.

Although you can try evaluating your own marketing materials or communication techniques from a beginner's point of view, you will quickly find that it is extremely difficult to do this objectively. Once you are aware of the curse of knowledge, this fact will become quite apparent. This is why focus groups are so popular and effective; instead of having another expert review your ideas, it allows you to see how your actual target market will react to your products or ads. If you don't have the budget or resources to conduct a focus group, try running your idea, advertisement or marketing collateral by a friend or family member who isn't in your industry.