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?
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