Living This Crucial Sales/Marketing Principle Will Make You a Better Copywriter

I ran this piece below as a feature this month in the March edition of The Well-Fed E-PUB. But I wanted to also post it here, so I could get feedback from all of you (and partly because I’m on an extended trip away, and want to make my life easier…;) Would love to hear your thoughts!

Websites that are wildly unclear about what the company does or sells. How-to guides that assume far too much knowledge and understanding on the part of the reader. Brochures and sales sheets that leave the reader with more questions than answers. Emails that have you scratching your head as to their meaning.

Pretty much everyday occurrences for all of us, right? And at the heart of all of them—and many other scenarios—is a principle so important, I unhesitatingly add it as #4 to the big three of sales/marketing (IMHO, anyway): “Who’s the audience?”; The Features/Benefits Equation (arguably, this new one is related to these first two); and USP (Unique Selling Proposition), all outlined in detail in Chapter 3 of The Well-Fed Writer.

What is this foundational principle? The Curse of Knowledge.

While I first encountered the idea of TCOK in the wonderful book, “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die,” (Chip and Dan Heath; buy it), according to Wikipedia, “The effect was first described in print by the economists Colin Camerer, George Loewenstein and Martin Weber, though they give original credit for suggesting the term to Robin Hogarth.”

Its definition (also from Wikipedia)? “The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias, according to which, better-informed people find it extremely difficult to think about problems from the perspective of lesser-informed people.”

Understanding and deeply internalizing this principle will pay huge dividends for your commercial writing practice (or any business you’re in) in how you present your business to the world, how you interact with clients, and how you help clients market their businesses.

Why? Because the effect of this principle is at the root of so many poorly executed communications materials, as well as marketing/advertising campaigns in general.

It can potentially rear its ugly, clueless head in:

1) How you showcase your own copywriting business on your web site, or in your marketing efforts—whether direct mail, email, cold calling, etc.

2) How you communicate with clients and prospects while working on projects.

3) How your clients communicate with their prospects and clients, with you potentially aiding, abetting and exacerbating the problem with your copy.

What’s the magic incantation to lift this curse? Simple. Not easy, but simple. Any time you need to successfully convey information to someone else (i.e., in all the scenarios described above, and, for that matter, any other time you’re communicating with anyone else for any reason), ask yourself this question:

If I knew absolutely nothing about this subject (very possible), was in the middle of doing something else when it crossed my path (highly likely), and had a short attention span (a given), would I “get it” quickly?

And if not, rework it until you can say yes.

And no, your audience won’t always be totally lacking in knowledge about a subject, and may in fact, be able to devote more than a miniscule sliver of their attention to the piece of writing in front of them, but it’s far wiser to assume they’re ignorant and distracted than the reverse.

It’s not easy to put yourself in a position of ignorance when, in fact, you are so close to something, but it’s an exceptionally valuable skill to develop.

Can you share any real-world examples you’ve seen of TCOK in action?

Any tips on cultivating the ability to view all writing with “fresh eyes”?

If you’re familiar with TCOK, how have you put it to work in your copywriting practice?

If you weren’t familiar with it, how can you envision applying an understanding of it to your business?

Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.

10 replies
  1. Christopher Korody
    Christopher Korody says:

    Yikes – my life story and it is a curse.

    So the corollary was the day that the grizzled old pro turned to me and said, your problem is that you’ve gotten to the end while everybody else is trying to get started.

    Also not good.

    Thanks for the post – it’s a fine reminder that not everyone is as invested or into the moment as you are.

  2. David Tomen
    David Tomen says:

    Strange how the Universe works Peter. I’m in the middle of a classic example of TCOK. I’m working with a client whose vision is to “Save the Planet”. He’s setting up a non-profit (he refers to it as a Global Preservation and Humanitarian Foundation), and its purpose is to have business owners offer a discount at the POS (point of sale); half of the discount goes back to the customer, and half to the “foundation”. The money is to be used for conservation of trouble spots around the world, helping startups in places like Haiti with farming, dredge up garbage from the ocean floor, and more.

    The incentive to get business owners to participate is a “rating system” on their “Corporate Social Responsibility”. His executive summary uses phrases like, “global retail economic spending cycle”. The Bible is an easier read… My job is to produce a tri-fold brochure that can be understood by the average “world citizen”. Wish me luck! 🙂

  3. Cathy Miller
    Cathy Miller says:

    This principle became the face of my brand. After spending over 30 years in an industry consumed with acronyms, convoluted “guides”, and legal-speak, my mission was to keep it simple. The industry? Healthcare. And with documents like health reform’s Affordable Care Act, I have job security. 🙂

    However, even with that mission, it is very easy to get too comfortable with my knowledge of the industry.

    I developed a SlideShare presentation on what I call my marketing litmus test to success. The 1st slide is an image of a little girl in her mommy’s shoes and says Put yourself in your prospect’s shoes.

    While geared toward your big three of sales/marketing, the presentation starts with that little girl image. You will not succeed (as you noted, Peter) with the big three if you don’t speak to the little girl. I try to keep that image in my mind. It reminds me not only to keep it simple, but to try to capture the joyful discovery of a child. If I’m doing a How-To, that could be the joyful discovery of mastering something new.

    With all our wonderful technology, I still encounter plenty of confusion. Sometimes it seems we are in such a rush to build the next great platform, we leave the consumer behind at the starting point.

  4. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Great stories! Love your technique, Cathy! And good luck, David. You’ve got your work cut out for you… Just remind the client that, at the early stage of a sales cycle, they need to focus on sharing ONLY what the prospect needs to hear at that point, NOT what THEY (the client) want to tell them. BIG difference between the two….

    And examples are ALL around us…

    I just got an email this morning that read as follows:

    Subject line: Is this the offer?

    Just making sure you got my email below?

    I’d love to lock-in one of these great offers we’ve got for March. But it does mean a quick 5-minute call between now and Monday.

    Do you have time this afternoon?


    From: Jessica Moore []
    Sent: Wednesday, March 26, 2014 9:07 AM
    Subject: Is this the offer?


    Jessica here, from RingCentral. I’d like to schedule a quick call in the next day or two to discuss a couple of current special offers your company qualifies for this month.

    We’re always priced to give our customers the most features for the best value. But when you make a change, it’s nice to keep that initial cost as low as possible. So if you’ve been waiting for a sign that now’s the time to change, this is it.

    What’s the best way to get 10 minutes on your calendar before the end of the month?

    My best,


    P.S. Did you see this article in the Wall Street Journal?


    Amazing. There are so many things wrong with this on so many levels, I scarcely know where to begin. Bad subject line. Means what??? First line is a statement, not a question, yet has a question mark. Is she a Valley Girl? With all her statements going up at the end?

    NO info at all about what they’re selling.

    Especially love, “I’d love to lock-in one of these great offers we’ve got…” If she was in front of me, I’d ask: If YOU’D love to lock in (NOT “lock-in”) one of YOUR offers, what do you need me for?

    And the earlier email she refers to below her initial message offers ZERO help in clarifying things. And that’s just for starters…


  5. William Reynolds
    William Reynolds says:

    People in jargon-heavy fields of endeavor such as legal, medical or technical work are particularly vulnerable to the “business-speak” trap. I was once hired to write marketing content for a manufacturer of technical equipment, and the client’s first words as I walked into his office were, “You’re here to rescue us.” They had gotten so entrenched in the lingo of their profession that they’d lost the ability to connect with a mainstream audience in a clear, everyday voice. Sometimes it pays to get the outsider’s perspective — especially if that outsider can write!

  6. Angie Dixon
    Angie Dixon says:

    I have a terrible tendency to do this. I write a lot about things I’m somewhat of an expert in, and it’s easy to forget that not everyone knows what I’m talking about.

    I once heard someone refer to the “grandmother test”–if you read your copy to your grandmother, would she understand it?

    I use the best friend test, because she’s not experienced in a lot of the things I do. I go a step further when I’m not sure if she could understand it–I ask her to read it. She’s also my editor, and she’s very good at pointing out what doesn’t work.

    Great post, by the way. I’ve gotten used to the fact that no one can understand what I’m talking about, and taken steps to remedy that, but it’s a common problem and I’m glad you brought it up.

  7. Dan Chicorel
    Dan Chicorel says:

    Hi Peter –

    This key premise and question – If I knew absolutely nothing about this subject (very possible), was in the middle of doing something else when I crossed my path (highly likely), and had a short attention span (a given), would I “get it” quickly? – came up just yesterday in the website creation I’m working on for a client.

    In researching out his competition’s websites, I was blown away at the amount of copy/content written in many portions of the website. I could guarantee you – nobody is going to read ALL THAT. My advice to my client was that we keep things simple, straightforward – but effective in the words I choose. People just do not have a lot of time to read every page of just about anything that comes through their inbox or in seeking out someone’s website.

    This is a great and critical point you raise. Whether that speaks to TCOK…I’m not sure. But it’s along those lines. Thanks for sharing and it’s time to simplify up my own website and practice what I preach.

  8. Mike Sweeney
    Mike Sweeney says:

    Great post Peter. And good heavens, I see this all the time while out prospecting for new clients in my niche. I guess financial services firms expect their customers to see them as “sophisticated” which usually translates into, “Can’t understand a word of what this means but it sounds good.” Consider this description about a major financial service firm’s asset management software:

    “In a market that continues to polarize between active ‘alpha’ and more passive ‘beta’ investment strategies, advanced asset management software can help institutions of all sizes strengthen their asset management operations and rise to growing challenges. With fees under pressure and complexity escalating, investors are demanding ever higher levels of service and transparency, making robust asset management software all the more vital.”

    Anyone else snoring?

  9. Joy Underhill
    Joy Underhill says:

    Woo boy, you’re right on with this post. As a former technical writer, I made my living translating what engineers said into something regular folk could understand. Time and again I would admonish: If you can’t “say it short,” you don’t know what you want to say. So often people forget to define the objective of a piece of writing. Again, if you don’t know what you want people to do, how will you know if a piece has succeeded???

  10. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Good stuff, everyone! And good examples…

    Great point, William. I’d wager good money that so many businesses don’t think they need to hire a professional writer because they think they know “how to explain their business to prospects.” And yet, SO many of those businesses are explaining it in terms and verbiage that’s waaaaaaaaay too esoteric. But they don’t get it.

    And that reluctance to hire folks like us is one of our MAIN challenges; heaven knows there’s enough potential business; it’s more a matter of convincing people they need us!

    And this can be a good way of getting through to people: hitting them with What They Didn’t Know They Didn’t Know: that they’re probably communicating with clients and prospects (and even employees) in language that doesn’t work, because that’s all they know…

    Love the “grandmother” test, Angie (or best friend who doesn’t know the business at all). That’s truly how we all have to think.

    Good example, Mike – and you’re right, it’s everywhere.

    And yes, Joyce, hand in hand with all of this is understanding the goal of the piece. As the old expression reminds: “When you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” 😉


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