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Who’s at the Helm of Your Messaging Ship?

I’ve worked in a wide variety of  organizations – medical school, senior living, higher education and outdoor recreation, to name just a few.

All of those organizations have different target audiences and services. But what they have in common is a communication challenge that may afflict your communication efforts as well.

The curse of knowledge.

In 1990, a Stanford University graduate student in psychology named Elizabeth Newton illustrated the curse of knowledge by studying a simple game in which she assigned people to one of two roles: “tapper” or “listener.” Each tapper was asked to pick a well-known song, such as “Happy Birthday,” and tap out the rhythm on a table. The listener’s job was to guess the song.

Over the course of Newton’s experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed only three of the songs correctly: a success ratio of 2.5%. But before they guessed, Newton asked the tappers to predict the probability that listeners would guess correctly. They predicted 50%. The tappers got their message across one time in 40, but they thought they would get it across one time in two. Why?

When a tapper taps, it is impossible for her to avoid hearing the tune playing along to her taps. Meanwhile, all the listener can hear is a kind of bizarre Morse code. Yet, the tappers were flabbergasted by how hard the listeners had to work to pick up the tune.

The problem is, once we know something—say, the melody of a song—we find it hard to imagine not knowing it. Our knowledge has “cursed” us. We have difficulty sharing it with others, because we can’t readily re-create their state of mind. (Harvard Business Review December 2006)

When it comes to messaging your brand, assuming the people you are trying to reach have the same level of knowledge as you can become a messaging mess.

The curse of knowledge shows itself when we communicate in abbreviations, acronyms (my particular pet peeve in all the organizations I listed above), lingo, jargon, shorthand, and  “inside baseball” (which, ironically, is itself slang resulting from the curse of knowledge. “Coming up fast on the outside” is another).

In sales, it means we talk right past the customer and don’t even know it. The ones who are too introverted may never tell you they didn’t understand key parts of your pitch. 

Find someone not in your business, who will be honest with you, and test out your curse of knowledge phrases. 

Then wrap everything in these three cardinal rules of messaging. They work for personal interactions, as well as the larger frame brand messaging.

  1. Clear: Use concrete words not abstract phrases. Avoid ambiguity and use simple language that is easily understood. For example, talking about lifestyle modifications rather than exercising more often. (Magic Words)
  2. Concise: This is especially important when you are writing out your brand messaging. People today scan, they don’t read every sentence of any message, there is just too much information flowing at everyone everyday.
  3. Consistent: Decide what you are going to call something, debate it, then consistently use it. Is it the sales floor or showroom? Are people you meet guests, customers or clients? Are you a sales professional, sales associate, team member or colleague? Are you a manager, leader or supervisor?

You can break the curse. 

Start tapping.

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