How B2B Marketers can lift the Curse of Knowledge

This might come as somewhat of a surprise, but almost every technological company out there is cursed. Not in a medieval kind of way, although some of you might think that, but in a psychological way.

The name of this bane? “The Curse of Knowledge”, a cognitive bias that hampers us in efficiently selling technical products.

The gentlemen who coined the terms were George Freud Loewenstein and Colin Farrell Camerer. The first being an economist and the great-grand son of Sigmund Freud, the famous Austrian gentlemen who gave rise to a somewhat influential school in early psychology. The second, a professor in behavioural economics whose intelligence allowed him to get his first bachelor degree at the age of 17 and his Ph.D. at 21.

The two of them described the cognitive bias that prevents well-informed people to anticipate how less-informed people will behave or react. In other words, when you know your topic well, it is impossible for you to understand that somebody else doesn’t, as all seems self-explanatory.

This research gave way to an entire movement, ranging from how to provide better education to how executives need to communicate on strategy.

Elizabeth Newton, a Stanford University student in psychology, clearly demonstrated this curse in 1990 with an easy two-people game. She asked one person to think of a well-known song and tap the rhythm with their fingers. The other participant had to listen and guess the song.

What came as a surprise to the persons tapping the song, was that most of the listeners didn’t guess it. Only 2.5% of the listeners did whilst the tappers thought half of them would.

Why? The reason is simple. The tappers couldn’t help but hear the tune play along the taps. The listener didn’t have this information and just heard somebody tapping a strange rhythm.

The curse of knowledge prevented the tappers to make a realistic estimate of how the other person would perceive their rhythmic interpretation of the song.

In the meantime, this experiment has been repeated numerous times with similar results. Illustrating the bias over and over again.

What does this mean for marketing?

Companies selling complex products like machines for diagnostics or engines for planes, have a lot of experts in house. They know the ins and outs of every aspect of their product.

As experts, they consider every detail is important. Once they finalize the development of a new product, a rather large spec-sheet is produced. This gets handed over to sales and marketing who then need to go out and sell this new marvel of technology. The teams enter the rat race with sales stories and marketing decks that represent these spec sheets in a nice lay-out. Sometimes even with a stock photo of a person, to show the human face of the company. Poor them.

This doesn’t mean this endless list of details is unimportant. The experts designed them into the product for a good reason. The only issue is that these experts are the only ones who truly understand why. For them, these reasons are so self-explanatory they believe no explanation is needed. For the non-experts amongst us, it feels like seeing the outcome of a mathematical problem without knowing the actual problem.

Expert companies have a hard time imagining anybody in the industry knows less than they do. They assume all specs are immediately understandable. But they are not!

When immersed in a certain domain of specialisation, we cannot help but think that there is very little else in the world.

How could we do anything else? All our peers are specialists and we talk 220 days per year about nothing else. Even when we have social interactions with colleagues, most of us will again converse about our area of expertise. No wonder we have the bias that everyone else in the industry must know as much as we do.

But our customers have a specialisation of their own. Our solutions are only part of their solutions. Sometimes the customers use our products as raw materials or process tools. They are not experts in your product, but in their own.

Most of the customers don’t even care about your product. They care about the outcome, the benefit they get from it.

I once coached a very senior product manager in translating an elaborate spec list into customer advantages. This person was one of these exceptionally bright individuals who had a doctorate degree in Electronics.

When we started working together I started with asking him what his features were solving for his customers. His initial answers very technical and didn’t touch any customer needs. So, I asked again. He bluntly but politely told me I simply did not understand his industry. His target audience were for sure going to understand all the details.

Being somewhat of a business veteran myself, I pushed ahead and asked for every feature the simple question; “What does it solve for whom?”. It took some convincing but in the end, we spent a full day on deciphering the product specifications into customer advantages. With these benefits, we were able to create all the necessary sales training material and marketing packs.

On the evening after the product launch, this man walked up to me with a broad smile.  For the first time in his career, the regional Sales leaders all called to congratulate him on a perfect launch. It was in their opinion, the first time, product management produced sales and marketing collateral that related to their customers and they could use without having to start anew. He thanked me for my perseverance in pushing him away from specs towards customer advantages.

Good products and services, deserve good value propositions. Good value propositions are stories telling what benefits the customer will get. They can make the difference between short and lengthy sales cycles. The quicker you translate how your product will help your customer achieve their goals, the faster they can relate to it.

Don’t assume your customers know as much as you do. They don’t. That’s why you are a specialist and why customers need you. Keep your stories simple and easy, and lift the curse of knowledge.



American Physical Society News, November 2007 (Volume 16, Number 10) APS News – The Back Page The “Curse of Knowledge” or Why Intuition About Teaching Often Fails By Carl Wieman


Harvard Business Review, December 2006, ‘The Curse of Knowledge’, Chip Heath &Dan Heath


What does this mean for marketing?