Break the “Curse of Knowledge” before it kills your pitch

Last week I had the opportunity to provide one-on-one pitch coaching for five different entrepreneurs. It was a lot of fun. This was part of a startup competition (similar to Shark Tank) hosted by Cox Business and Inc Magazine. One of the concepts we covered in each session was a sales messaging principle that applies equally to startups and Fortune 500s: be incredibly specific. It sounds obvious, but it doesn’t come naturally. Here’s why.

pitch2You’re too close to your business.
When you say “business optimization” or “achieving workability” or “analysis technology”, you know exactly what you mean. You’re picturing a real-life scenario. You know what life is like before that “optimization” happens – and how much difference it makes. Your audience doesn’t. This creates a big disconnect.

It’s called the Curse of Knowledge.
The authors of Made To Stick call this disconnect the “Curse of Knowledge”. And it shows up in sales conversations every day. When you have intimate firsthand knowledge of a subject, it’s nearly impossible to imagine what it was like not having that knowledge. This makes it hard to share your knowledge with others. (Ever had a tough time understanding your doctor explain a medical issue?)

How do you reverse the curse?
Get extremely specific. It’s not difficult, but it does require a conscious effort. Here are three simple ways to be more specific in your marketing and sales messaging:


  • Use concrete language – Replace vague, abstract concepts (e.g., “sustainable architectural solutions”) with real, tangible specifics (e.g., “LEED certified, solar powered”). This one is easy to overlook. It’s what leads to all the corporate jargon we see in Dilbert cartoons and sales presentations every day.
  • Use numbers – Whenever you can quantify something, do it. One of the pitchers I spoke with during the startup coaching sessions had served over 6,000 customers. That number alone is far more meaningful than saying you have a “strong track record”.
  • Use stories – All of the entrepreneurs I spoke with had fascinating stories of how they came up with their idea, why they started the business, and problems they’d solved. These kinds of stories give incredible context and meaning to a sales message. They need to be told.


pitch1The winner of the pitch competition was an entrepreneur with a great idea for a new technology product that videos your golf swing and provides feedback. I think one of the reasons she did so well was because her idea was so easy to grasp – it was incredibly tangible and concrete. Yet, even then, the Curse of Knowledge could have crept in.

Her vision was to apply this unique technology to other sports as well. The pitch began by describing “analysis technologies that revolutionize the way we learn”. The problem is, no one knows what that means yet. So, we decided to describe the golf product first, using concrete language so that people could really picture it. Then she can say, “Imagine what this would do in tennis, baseball, and basketball.” Now, if she mentions “analysis technologies” people have the context to understand it. See the difference?

So, next time you’re crafting a sales message, be on your guard against the “Curse of Knowledge”. Make your pitch easier to grasp by making it more specific.

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