Are You Cursed with Knowledge?

Kathryn Roy

The Curse of Knowledge has several manifestations but the one most relevant to sales and marketing people is that becoming steeped in a technical domain causes us to stop recognizing when we use words or ideas less familiar to others. If we are any good at our job, we immerse ourselves in learning about our industry, including what analysts say about it. The best people pretty quickly become experts.

The problem happens when we are responsible for communicating to prospects and customers. All too often, we forget not what we learned but that we learned it. The knowledge in our head feels like it has always been there. It becomes harder for us to put ourselves in the shoes of our prospects.

It’s easy for us to recognize when others suffer from the Curse. The young marketing manager who thinks everyone – including your older, staid prospects – knows that “socialize an idea” means to talk about the idea with others. The marketing executive who spent so much time with analysts, analyst-speak has become second nature. [See analyst mentalpause in the 7 Infectious Diseases of B2B Marketing]. The creative genius who invented a new product category and believes everyone has now heard about it.

Eventually, analyst terms or invented product categories may make it into mainstream usage, but it can take years. And some fizzle quickly. “Groupware” for Lotus Notes is a great example.

But how do you cure someone of the Curse of Knowledge when they don’t know they suffer from it?

In a workshop teaching people how to present, if someone didn’t realize they weren’t moving appropriately or they were using “um” every third word, you could have viewers give them feedback or even better, videotape and show them.

The key to detecting whether you have the Curse of Knowledge is to add a few questions to interviews conducted to test messaging and positioning options.

“Please tell me what the following terms mean to you.” or “If you purchased a talent management suite, what capabilities would you expect to get?”

Chip and Dan Heath, authors of “Made to Stick,” the insightful look at why some ideas catch on while others don’t, suggest that following their formula for how to communicate ideas will cure the Curse and make your ideas memorable.

  • Simple
  • Unexpected
  • Concrete
  • Credible
  • Emotion (tapping into)
  • Stories

I’m a fan of “Made to Stick.” But if you don’t test your terminology, you’ll be thinking you are following the Simple rule when you aren’t.

Kathryn Roy, the founder of Precision Thinking, has over 25 years of experience helping some of the most successful and fastest-growing B2B technology companies – including IBM, Constant Contact, Avid, AT&T – boost the effectiveness of their sales and marketing organizations. You can email her at