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You Have the Curse of Knowledge

(457 words – 4 min)

I first learned about the curse of knowledge in Dan and Chip Heath’s book, Made to Stick.  The concept describes a situation in which you know something so well that you forgot what it’s like not to know it.  

Have you ever talked with an expert about their topic and didn’t understand what they were saying?  Have you gone to a doctor who described your problem using words you don’t know?  These people aren’t trying to make you look stupid (probably).  They are communicating in the way they know how.  They don’t realize you don’t understand.  

Maybe you’re thinking, “that never happens to me.”  Here’s a challenge for you.  Volunteer to help with computer problems at a retirement community.  Better yet, try helping over the phone.  (I remember trying to help my dad with his computer problems.  Ouch.). What we take for granted, they don’t know. 

OK, let’s apply this to pricing.  I finally stopped being surprised that companies don’t understand their own value.  Well, they probably understand it but can’t articulate it to potential buyers or to me.  I blame it on the curse of knowledge.  They know their products and markets so well they don’t remember what it’s like not to know. 

One of my favorite sayings is, “Experts buy features.  Novices buy benefits.”  This means an expert can hear about a feature and translate it into benefits on their own.  Novices need someone to translate for them.  When you have the curse of knowledge, you imagine everyone is an expert like you and talk to them about your features.  Take a look at your website.  Most websites are descriptions of features and capabilities targeted at experts.  But your home page is probably designed to attract new buyers.  If the last three sentences are true for your company, then you’re exhibiting the curse of knowledge.  

One of my favorite exercises with clients is to define the problem.  They built a product or a feature for a reason, to solve a problem.  What was that problem?  Can they articulate it in first-person format from the perspective of the customer?  My experience shows that most (all?) companies find this exceptionally hard.  While doing this exercise with clients, I frequently say, “that’s not a problem.”  I can recognize this because I’m not an expert on their product or market.  I don’t have the curse of knowledge (at least regarding their products.) 

How do you get rid of this curse?  Talk to novices.  Pay attention to what they don’t understand.  Learn to put yourself in their shoes.  It’s not easy, but it will make you a much better communicator.  

Do you have any interesting examples of when the curse of knowledge caused you problems?

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