The Curse of Knowledge: Why Your Expertise Is Killing Your Sales

I got my start at a small tech company that offered a Saas solution to field service businesses (think HVAC companies, maid services, plumbing companies and other home service businesses). On several occasions, our sales and support teams would encounter customers who just weren't tech savvy... 

But why would they be? They're out in the field all day working on homes, they aren't in front of computers 40 hours a week like we are. I remember one rep joking with another about how one customer thought that Yahoo was a web browser.

Of course, because of our experience with technology, we knew Yahoo is actually a webSITE, not a web browser like Google Chrome or Safari. On the flip side, our customers needed hand holding through product tours and systems set up.

Our customers were not dumb, they just didn’t have the knowledge or experience we had.

And while this is a very basic example of the curse of knowledge, it gives you an idea of the kinds of things that can unintentionally cause potential customers to turn away from your product or service.


In case you're wondering, we didn’t win that customer (the one who thought Yahoo was a web browser) even though he was a perfect fit and had the money to purchase our software, all because we didn't speak to him in a way that made him feel empowered and confident.

So is it possible that our marketing messaging could have this same effect? Is it possible that our highly detailed product descriptions are actually driving people away? Can you really be too specific and sophisticated? Is there a chance that our sales scripts are missing the language our customers need to hear most?

For most companies the answer is yes and the phenomenon causing it is known as the curse of knowledge.

Testing the curse

In 1990, Stanford University Ph.D. candidate, Elizabeth Newton, conducted an experiment to test the theory of the curse of knowledge.

She had one group of people tap familiar songs, like 'Happy Birthday' and while another group listened to them and tried to guess the song.

Out of 120 songs tapped, only three songs were guessed correctly. 

The tappers were overconfident in their ability to communicate the simple message to a listener. They didn't realize that being able to sing the melody in their heads as they tapped gave them an advantage over the listener who was completely in the dark.

How the curse of knowledge plagues entrepreneurs and businesses

When you work with a product or provide a service on a regular basis, you begin to forget what it's like not working with the product or providing the service. This is essentially the curse of knowledge.

The curse of knowledge can spell disaster when trying to explain what you do and what makes it useful to someone new.

You may end up oversimplifying your message leaving your listener with questions or you may wind up confusing your listener with lingo that's unfamiliar and makes them feel inferior (causing them to give up and move on to something that's easier to understand!).

No matter how the curse plagues your brand, it can seriously damage your bottom line if you're not careful. Marketing messaging, product descriptions and tutorials, taglines and catchphrases, speeches, and more can all be victims of the curse of knowledge.

How to fight the curse of knowledge and clear up confusion

1. Ask new people (who have never seen your product before) to read your copy and tell you if they understand it.

If you can, observe them (in a non-creepy, scientific way) while they're reading or watching your material and take note of their facial expressions and body language.

If they're leaning in towards the computer screen, squinting their eyes, and taking a while to decipher your message, it's probably because it's not clear enough for them to say "aha" right away.

Revise, rewrite, revisit until "aha" or "wow" is the reaction 90% of the time.

2. Speak to the simplest persona in your audience

Speak to every persona, but make sure your messaging is easy enough for a newbie to understand and fluid enough for an expert to skim through the parts they don't need.

3. Try to go through your website or product as if it were your first time

What stands out? Is anything the slightest bit unclear? If so, revise it.

If you have to think about whether or not it's confusing, it probably is.

4. Go back to existing or previous customers and ask for feedback

What was their biggest hurdle getting started with you? What about their experience with you was confusing or just plain unsatisfying.

Your unhappiest customer will give you more insight than your happiest customer.

Got hate mail? Don't ignore it... send a friendly message back asking if they have time to chat. Once you break down the walls, you'd be surprised the golden nuggets you'll pull from these types of conversations!

5. Tell stories and go through the Viral Story Blueprint (coming soon) to get it right

Stories are by far the best way to combat the curse of knowledge because they force us to use concrete language and simplify complex details.

Cut down the noise on your website, in your videos, in your marketing materials and sales pitches. Strip out the confusion and discover brilliant new clarity when you build your brand on a story as your foundation.