Beware the Curse of Too Much Knowledge

A great story from How to Become CEO, Jeffrey Fox’s first business bestseller, has stuck with me over the years:

One of the leading US automakers, desperate to improve gas mileage during the 1970’s energy crisis, called on its engineers to redesign its cars to be less heavy. But veteran engineers insisted that reducing the weight of cars would be unsafe, impractical and just plain impossible.

Of course, they were wrong. The automaker then brought in recent engineering grads who quickly proceeded to shed hundreds of pounds off the cars with no adverse impact.

The new engineers were successful because they were not constrained by preconceptions from years (even decades) of expertise. You can also say the veteran engineers failed because they knew too much!

This story is a great example of what my friend and product marketing consultant Neil Baron calls the “Curse of Too Much Knowledge.”

As Neil explained for Fast Company [ 1 ] [ 2 ], the Curse of Too Much Knowledge happens when an organization has an abundance of product expertise combined with a shortage of experience in successfully commercializing a product. This mismatch in skills results in ineffective value propositions and product messaging that fail to resonate with prospective customers.

The Curse of Too Much Knowledge is most likely to happen, Neil says, when a subject matter expert is brought in to lead its product marketing effort. Big mistake!

As Neil explains:

I regularly witness product technology experts struggle to explain what their product does in a way that non-experts can understand. As a result, it is difficult for a product expert to understand what it is like to be a non-expert and communicate effectively with them. And yet, these non-experts are often the key decision makers vital to the company’s success.

Instead, companies must find people to lead their commercialization effort who have successful product launch experience, a proven track record communicating complex ideas and have the ability to question your assumptions about your product and your customer.

Here are three additional suggestions to help “reverse the curse” of too much knowledge:

Go to the periphery. In addition to existing customers, communicate with co-workers in different departments, distant geographic regions, business units exploring new technology and others who are not personally “invested” in the technology. Discover the disconnects between subject matter experts living your products every day and the “periphery” of the business.

Talk to the “nons”, as in speaking with non-customers, non-employees and non-suppliers; those who do not interact with the company, whether for a particular reason (why?) or simply being unaware of your organization. What are their reactions to your value proposition? Do they “get it” and express some interest in it? If not, why not?

Engage your prospective customer so they say to you, “Tell me more.” This is key. Your product’s exceptional features are only relevant to your customer to the extent that they deliver new business-building, problem-solving benefits. That means your first responsibility as a marketer – or a seller – is to lead with those benefits (the “what” and “why” of your product) and not your product’s features. Your second responsibility is to be ready with succinct, compelling details – when asked by your prospective customer (the “how”). Think of these two responsibilities as your fastball and curve ball.

In his breakthrough original Solution Selling book, Michael Bosworth wrote that the best salespeople “keep all their product’s amazing features in their pockets [until the right time] – because they don’t use their product to sell – they use their product to prove.” He also added this:

If you see your competitors [setting up a slide presentation about] the history of their company and their product’s amazing features, smile to yourself. They will be easy for you to beat. They don’t know how to create a buyer.

Using Michael Bosworth’s same yardstick, if a marketer begins any given product messaging effort by deep-diving into a discourse on features instead of customer wants and needs, that’s a red flag suggesting they don’t know how to create a marketing lead – effectively or at scale.

Simply put, The Curse of Too Much Knowledge is caused by being so knowledgeable, so brilliant about your product, that you can’t explain it simply and effectively. Organizations that understand the risks and implications of The Curse of Too Much Knowledge are much more likely to actively avoid it all together, while effectively marketing and selling their technology and other innovative products.

If you liked this article, you may also like:

Marketers: What’s Your Fastball? What’s Your Curve Ball?

“Begin with the Beginning in Mind” for Content Creation

Why the Best Product Marketers Are “Intelligently Disobedient”

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