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What is the Curse of Knowledge bias?

Many successful entrepreneurs and executives get their start as experts in their field. For example, tech giants Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were experts. And, what about local business people that you know? Your doctor, beautician, and auto-mechanic all may be experts in their field and may also be the owners of their practice or shop. They are probably very knowledgeable and have much to offer clients and customers.

With so much expertise, what could go wrong?

The aspiring entrepreneur or executive, who is also a subject matter expert in their field, may suffer from what psychologists call “curse of knowledge” bias. So, what does this mean and how does it impact our success?

Successful entrepreneurs and executives need to communicate effectively. Think about it. Business success depends on relationships and relationships depend on clear communication. This is where the “curse of knowledge” bias gets in the way. The expert tends to communicate with others as though they are experts too. They have difficulty breaking down complex concepts that they have long understood and struggle even to find words to use other than the specific jargon of their field.

How does the Curse of Knowledge Bias impact a business?

Let’s look at a few hypothetical examples.

Example 1:

After a successful performing career, professional ballerina Nikita decides to open a dance school. She meets with a website designer. Nikita insists that the website feature the fact that she is trained in the Vaganova method and that all classes begin with a traditional barre and progress to the adagio. The website is built and Nikita loves it! It gets decent traffic, but very few parents actually enroll their children in Nikita’s classes. Why? They have no clue what the Vaganova method is. They just know that their children want to have fun and be princess ballerinas. So, they signed up at the other local studio, the one with the website featuring pictures of smiling children in tutus. Nikita’s website doesn’t really speak to them. Curse of Knowledge bias = Marketing Fail!

Example 2:

Joe went for some medical tests and was more than a little nervous about the results. The doctor ever so patiently explained about selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and neuro-transmitters, but Joe didn’t really understand what those words meant. He ended up feeling more anxious than ever. Confused and upset, he decides to see another doctor. Curse of Knowledge bias = Client Relationship Fail!

Example 3:

Lonnie’s family has been in the nursery and greenhouse business for three generations, supplying plants and trees to landscapers and homeowners. Lonnie grew up in the business and knows everything there is to know about plants. It’s almost fall, and Lonnie is very busy. He hops in his pickup truck and before taking off, asks a couple of students that he recently hired to move all of the deciduous trees to the back of the lot of potted trees for sale. They are left staring at each other, wondering which trees, exactly, they are supposed to move. They find oaks and maples, as well as cedars and pines, but nothing called deciduous. As you may or may not know, Lonnie simply wanted them to move the trees that would soon lose their leaves, but his employees did not understand the instructions. Curse of Knowledge bias = Employee Management Fail!

5 Tips to Overcome the Curse of Knowledge Bias

There is nothing wrong with being an expert. In fact, it is usually a tremendous advantage. If you are an expert though, be wary of the Curse of Knowledge bias. You can use these five tips to overcome it in all your communication:

  1. Know your audience - Like a good speaker or stand-up comic, know your audience. What is their background? Nikita’s potential customers aren’t ballet aficionados, they are suburban moms. The patient, Joe, is an engineer, not a doctor. And the students who work for Lonnie? They are willing to work hard, but one is studying music and the other is learning software development. They are not botanists.

  2. Check your vocabulary - Are you using words that your customers, employees or others may not understand? Joe didn’t get “neurotransmitter.” If the doctor had explained that it is a substance that sends an impulse from one nerve to another, Joe, being a reasonably intelligent person could have understood better.

  3. Know your customers - This is at the heart of effective marketing and customer relationships. Just because you think something is great doesn’t mean that your customers do. In the case of Joe, some reassurance from the doctor that he would feel better soon would have gone a lot further than a science lecture.

  4. Educate your customers, but do it gradually - Start with what they want, then show them how it can be even better. If Nikita had managed to gain those suburban moms and their adorable children as her customers, she could gradually introduce them to the wonders of classical ballet and what it takes to truly become a star.

  5. Consider the “why” - Sometimes that is the most effective way to communicate. All Lonnie needed to tell his employees was, “Move the maples and the oaks to the back. They’ll be losing their leaves soon and we don’t want leaves everywhere.”

Let me know if you have any questions or comments. I always enjoy hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Stewart Swayze 

 

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