When You Know Too Much


Have you ever played the game Pictionary? If so, you’ve probably had the maddening experience of drawing a perfectly clear picture, but nobody on your team can guess what it is. What’s worse, while you draw clear pictures every time it’s your turn, your team mates always draw some mess of lines that looks nothing like their clue word. No wonder you’re behind!

So what’s going on, and what does that have to do with sales and marketing messaging?

The phenomenon is called the “Curse of Knowledge,” and it’s one of the most common obstacles to effective communication. The Curse of Knowledge has three parts:

First, it says that experts in a topic overestimate the expertise of their audience when talking about that topic. Secondly, the research shows that the more expert you are on a topic, the more you overestimate the knowledge level of your audience. Thirdly, even when experts are fully aware that their audience is not as knowledgeable as they are, they still can’t fully correct for the effect. [1]

What does this look like in selling? The most flagrant offense is using your own company jargon. Hopefully you’re past that.

But what about when you’re discussing your solutions, or even having a higher-level business conversation about your industry? Many salespeople, in an attempt to build credibility and sound knowledgeable, overestimate the knowledge of their customer, and leave them confused.

I can just about guess what you’re saying now: Wait a minute. My customers know way more than I do. They’ve spent their career in the field, they have advanced degrees. They’re the experts here. I can’t possibly be the one with the curse of knowledge.

Valid points, but: What are they experts on, and what are you expert on? For starters, your customer is not an expert on your products and solutions. Don’t assume they know how your solutions work, or more importantly, what that means to them.

Your customer also has broader responsibilities than the one area you want to talk to them about. If you sell encryption software to a Chief Security Officer, they have to be knowledgeable about all aspects of information security, not just encryption. If you sell automation controls to a factory manager, they have to run the entire factory, and can’t have the depth of knowledge you have about your products.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that you should dumb down your message. You do have to establish your credibility. In fact, a certain amount of jargon can be used as an identifier that you belong to their group. (Linguists call this “in-group language”.) Just make sure that it is industry jargon, and not your company’s.

The key is to recognize where your expertise is, and how your expertise is different from that of your customer. You can then adjust your conversation to the right level of detail. When it comes to the topics your customer really cares about – the challenges that others like them are facing, how your solutions are different, and what that means to them – you may find that a little more detail will make your message easier to understand.

The Curse of Knowledge can make for some good laughs in the game of Pictionary. Even when you can’t get your team mates to understand your drawing, they do eventually get to see the answer and appreciate your efforts. In sales, you have a lot more to lose if you can’t get the customer to understand your message. So understand what expertise you can offer, and don’t miss your opportunity to add value by assuming the customer already knows the right answer.

[1] https://dx.doi.org/10.1086%2F261651


Rob Perrilleon

Rob Perrilleon

Vice President, Consulting Services

Rob Perrilleon is VP of Consulting Services at Corporate Visions. His passion for selling success helps clients has helped clients across four continents, in a broad array of industries, develop and deliver their own unique messages by crafting powerful stories and telling them with confidence.