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 every day 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.
I went fulltime with my commercial writing business about three years ago. A scary move, as so many of you know, but within about six months, I was starting to build momentum. I was landing copywriting projects on a fairly regular basis, and some referrals were starting to come my way.
Then in late 2010, I got the dream offer: the opportunity to work on a long-term project for an organization located in Hawaii. I’d always wanted to live in Hawaii, so it was a fairly easy decision. It would be guaranteed income for 7-8 months, and I’d get to escape Colorado winter and walk on the beach every day after work. I mean, come on—it was a no-brainer! So, I packed up and headed to the islands.
My intentions were good at the start of the project. Of course I’d stick to my weekly marketing tasks. Yeah, the time zone difference might pose a bit of a challenge as far as cold calling, but I’d make it work. Right? Wrong.
What actually happened was…I went beachside and the marketing of my commercial freelancing business went by the wayside. And eight months later when the project was complete and my contract ended, the reality set in that I was going to be starting from scratch. And it was worse than I thought—I was literally back to square one.
I don’t regret accepting the opportunity, and not just because I got to spend eight months snorkeling and wearing flip-flops 24/7. It was an interesting project related to subject matter I’m passionate about. But truth be told, there’s a part of me that can’t help but wonder where my commercial copywriting business would be today if I hadn’t detoured and put all my eggs in one basket for almost a year. At the end of my contract, I found myself holding an empty basket and yelling, “Hey, where’d everybody go?”
If presented with the same opportunity again, I’d still take it. But I did learn some lessons about the long-term cost of working for just one client, and about the pitfalls of working on-site at the client’s location. For anyone who might be tempted to consider a similar opportunity, I’d offer the following food for thought:
1) Think carefully before accepting the project (yes, even in the case of tropical island locations). Ask yourself honestly how the decision will likely affect your business in the long run. Do you have the discipline needed to stick with your marketing efforts? Will it take a toll on your business, from a long-term perspective? If so, are you willing to start over when the contract ends?
2) If you do take on the project, insist on working from your own office. You can always attend meetings on-site when necessary. But working from your own location will help you look at the job as you would any other project, versus seeing yourself—and having them see you—as an employee.
3) If working on site is a requirement, maintain a professional, independent contractor attitude. Don’t let yourself get pulled into office politics, and beware of staff members who try to recruit you to their camp during in-house power struggles (and believe me, they will try). I’m not saying don’t ever socialize; just be sure and maintain the professional boundaries. If you get cornered in the coffee room by the company gossip king/queen, politely excuse yourself because of “that pressing deadline.”
4) Push for having only one point of contact, as far as submitting the work you do. This goes for any project, of course. We all know where the “road of multiple reviewers” leads. But it’s especially important when working on site. There’s nothing worse than having a steady stream of people stop by your desk to let you know how THEY think the article you’re writing should be revised.
5) Most importantly, maintain contact with your other current and previous clients—through a blog, newsletter, e-zine, etc. And make time each week for some regular marketing tasks (networking, cold calling, etc.). In his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey talks about the importance of P-PC (Production-Production Capability) Balance. Failing to maintain your production capability in favor of focusing solely on your current production is akin to killing the golden goose (production capability) that’s producing your golden eggs.
Have you ever been offered a long-term, fulltime project with a single client? Did you accept the offer, or did the long-term cost seem too great?
How did you keep up your marketing strategies and maintain ties with your other clients?
Did you work onsite, or did you insist on maintaining your autonomy by working from your own office?
If you worked onsite, what strategies helped you maintain your independent status?