Why Knowing Too Much Is Hurting Your Business

By Brad Groznik

In several meetings recently, I've talked a lot about the benefits of getting an outsider's perspective on your business. Partly because I want you to hire me for the perspective but also because I believe it can be a real eye-opener.

In “Made to Stick,” my favorite book about effective communication, authors Chip and Dan Heath tell a story about what they call “the curse of knowledge,”

In 1990, Elizabeth Newton earned a Ph.D. in psychology at Stanford by studying a simple game in which she assigned people to one of two roles: “tappers” or “listeners.” Tappers received a list of twenty-five well-known songs, such as “Happy Birthday to You” and “The Star Spangled Banner.” Each tapper was asked to pick a song and tap out the rhythm to a listener (by knocking on a table). The listener’s job was to guess the song, based on the rhythm being tapped. (By the way, this experiment is fun to try at home if there’s a good “listener” candidate nearby.)

The listener’s job in this game is quite difficult. Over the course of Newton’s experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed only 2.5 percent of the songs: 3 out of 120.

But here’s what made the result worthy of a dissertation in psychology. Before the listeners guessed the name of the song, Newton asked the tappers to predict the odds that the listeners would guess correctly. They predicted that the odds were 50 percent. The tappers got their message across 1 time in 40, but they thought they were getting their message across 1 time in 2. Why?

When a tapper taps, she is hearing the song in her head. Go ahead and try it for yourself — tap out “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It’s impossible to avoid hearing the tune in your head. Meanwhile, the listeners can’t hear that tune — all they can hear is a bunch of disconnected taps, like a kind of bizarre Morse code.

Like the tappers in this experiment, we can find it difficult to talk about our businesses from an objective viewpoint because we know it inside and out. In the business world, there are many clichéd phrases to say this, like “you’re too in the weeds,” or “we need a view of this from 30,000 feet.” 

But that’s not to say there aren't ways (aside from hiring me) to get a new perspective on the messages you’re sending out to your audience.

Ask your mother to read it.
Literally. I know it’s common to say you want your messaging to be so simple “your mother could understand it.” But what better way to test that theory than getting her actual opinion. I’ll guarantee she’ll have thoughts that you never considered. She probably won’t charge you that much either.  

Start with the why. 
As Simon Sinek says, most companies are really good at telling people what they do. “We make computer chips, hamburgers, motorcycles,” whatever. But what drives people to buy your product is why you do it. There are lots of motorcycle companies but people buy Harley Davidsons because they’re a company of rebels who happen to make great motorcycles. 

Starting with why you produce the products you do is a great exercise in objectivity because if you can understand why you’re in business, that insight resonates with people so much stronger than what your product does.

Tell a story.
Stories about how your products help or entertain your customers will give an objective spin. No one has ever started a story “Our coffee is free trade and environmentally friendly.” But people do tell stories about “Miguel, a Guatemalan coffee farmer, who is able to send his daughter to college because of his hard work and partnership with Groznik Coffee Grounders.”

Now tell me — how have you overcome challenges from "the curse of knowledge?"