Chip Heath and Dan Heath wrote an interesting article in the Harvard Business review this month about the “curse of knowledge” (requires subscription).
The curse of knowledge happens when your language, which is based on your level of knowledge, cannot be understood by others. So an executive who uses language like “achieving customer delight!”, or “unlocking shareholder value”, phrases that have real meaning to him based on his years of immersion in the logic and conventions of business, will sound like a person who has a love affair with vague strategy statements to frontline employees who may not be privy to the underlying meanings.
An interesting experiment done at Stanford University in the early 90’s proves that point rather nicely. In the experiment they assigned people one of two roles – “tapper” and “listener.” The tapper would pick a well known song, such as “Happy Birthday” and tap it out on the table. The listener had to guess what the song was. Before tapping the song the tapper was asked to predict the probability that the listener would get it right – and they predicted 50%. When they actually tapped the songs, the success ratio was a whopping 2.5% – out of 120 songs, only three songs were guessed correctly. So what sounded like the perfect tune for the tapper actually sounded like some kind of weird tapping code for the listener.
One way to avoid this is by “translating” your message in very simple language, and one company that does this right according to the article is Trader’s Joe. They actually develop their messages for the imaginary unemployed college professor who drives a very, very used Volvo.
This is a great reminder of the power of using real and actual scenarios in doing business. Not only can real detailed scenarios with real people help you with messaging, they will also help you with the design of better products and and the development of better customer interaction processes.