The curse of knowledge in B2B social content

There’s a story that Chip and Dan Heath tell in their book “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die” that I think about often when creating B2B content for social.

A Stanford University Graduate by the name of Elizabeth Newton ran a simple experiment in 1990 that perfectly illustrates the curse of knowledge.

She divided people into two roles – “tappers” and “listeners”. She instructed the tappers to tap the rhythm of well-known songs like “Happy Birthday” out on a table.

The listeners’ task was deceptively straightforward – guess the song.

One hundred and twenty songs were tapped out over the course of the experiment. Take a guess as to how many the listeners guessed correctly.

Eighty? Forty? Ten?


That equates to a success ratio of 2.5%.


Interestingly, before they guessed, Newton asked listeners to predict how many songs they would get right. They predicted a 50% success rate.

This is the curse of knowledge. The tappers cannot avoid hearing the tune playing along as they tap. It’s blaring at full mental volume.

Meanwhile, all the listeners are getting is a kind if garbled Morse Code.

giphy (1)

The premise is an easy one to understand, once we have learned something (like the melody to a song) it is impossible to unlearn it and very difficult to remember what it was like to have never known that information.

Simply put, knowledge has “cursed” us.

At the beginning of this post I mentioned that I think about this often when creating B2B content in social.

This is because our clients livebreatheeatsleep their brands and, by extension, the products and services they are ultimately tasked with selling.

For them, it’s a song that they know so intimately, they hum it in their sleep.

What then happens is that the content created by B2B marketing departments to market their products comes full to bursting with jargon, verbosity and logical leaps that only people that know their product like they do can successfully make.

As an agency, we are typically given a boatload of content like this in the form of reports, whitepapers or brochures with a view to shatter that content for social.

Lazy content creators will just extract key tenants from the copy, shave the character count down and dump the Frankensteinian result in a posting plan.


Content creators worth their salt take a slightly different approach…

Step 1 – Kick jargon to the curb

This is hardly a revolutionary idea, people have been saying it since “jargon” crawled out of the primordial word soup, yet so many brands are guilty of jargonising every bit of copy that leaves the building.

Jargon effectively divides your audience into those in the know and those that aren’t. Yes, there is an argument that it draws those in the know closer, but it’s at the expense of new customers – leave it out.

Step 2 – Kill clichés

Gut reaction reading this sentence?

“We go the extra mile to deliver best-in-class money management tools that harness innovative technology to unlock a wealth of savings”.

You lost me at “we go the extra mile”.

This sentence is riddled with clichés and bloated prose. Kill it. Kill it all.

giphy (3)

Strip it all out to deliver a message that connects.

“We care as much about saving you money as you do about giving your staff Christmas bonuses.”

Much better.

This example leads me neatly to my last point.

Step 3 – Concrete language

The curse of knowledge often leads us to communicate in abstract language because we fall into lazy thought patterns.

Ask yourself “what am I actually trying to say?” and then work at using concrete language to say it.

The trick is to be as specific as possible. If you had to ask me what I had for breakfast and I replied “food”, you’d probably think I was being facetious.

Had I said “eggs benedict with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice”, THAT’S something to work with. It has substance, it’s concrete, it has meaning.

So when you are next tasked with turning marketing material into social copy, think back to the tappers and listeners experiment.

Take a step back from what you are doing, hone in on the message you are trying to land and, in plain English, land it.

Happy tapping 😉

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