I drink, and I know things (aka the curse of knowledge)

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Ed Jaffe


Aug 17, 2020


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One of the most famous quotes from Game of Thrones comes from one of the most boring scenes (the scene didn’t have any fighting, death, nudity, dragons, more nudity, or zombies). In this scene, Tyrion, Missandei, Varys and Grey Worm are discussing why the dragons aren’t eating. Don’t worry if you have no idea who these people are – it’s not important to the quote.

Grey Worm: If the dragon does not want to eat, how do you force him to eat?

Tyrion: Dragons do not do well in captivity.

Missandei: How do you know this?

Tyrion: That’s what I do. I drink, and I know things.

And, right at that moment, at least 15,000 bar trivia teams got their name.

Learning is good. Knowing things is good. After all, G.I. Joe taught me that “knowing is half the battle.” But knowledge can also be a curse. Sometimes it can be difficult to remember that you know things others don’t, and you act as if you know them. This is called the “curse of knowledge,” and we see it in demos and presentations all the time.

Theory of Mind

In his book If I Understood you, Would I Have This Look on my Face?, actor and communications expert Alan Alda talks at length about something called the “Theory of Mind,” as it greatly impacts our ability to connect with each other. If empathy is the heart, or the ability to feel what others are feeling, then Theory of Mind is the brain, or our ability to understand what others are feeling. As some very smart people put it:

Theory of Mind (ToM) [is] the capacity to make inferences about and represent others’ intentions, goals and motives (other terms include mentalizing and cognitive empathy). – Frontiers in Psychiatry

Theory of Mind is how we understand that others have different beliefs and thoughts than we do. It gives us our ability to infer what others are thinking or believing. To see things from someone else’s perspective.

As Theory of Mind develops in children (usually around ages 3-5), they typically go through 5 phases: First they understand that people might want something for different reasons, then that peoples’ beliefs about the same thing can be different, then that people may not understand or know something, then that people can hold false beliefs, and, finally, that people can lie or deceive (I know, this last one is super depressing).

To illustrate this, imagine a child and parent in the kitchen, and the parent puts a cookie in the cookie jar. The child then takes the cookie from the jar, somehow doesn’t eat it, and instead puts it in the cabinet as a prank (it’s not a good prank, but it’s a kid, so just go with it). The parent comes back and wants the cookie – where will they look?

Children who have developed a Theory of Mind, as well as most adults, will correctly identify that the parent will look in the jar, even though the cookie isn’t there. We recognize that the parent doesn’t know the cookie was moved, therefore they’ll check where they think it is (we identify the false belief).

Children who have not yet developed a Theory of Mind, as well as individuals on the Autism spectrum, will say that the parent will check the cabinet, because these individuals aren’t able to comprehend that the parent’s knowledge isn’t the same as their own. They know the cookie is in the cabinet, so the parent must know that too.

However, just because someone has a well developed Theory of Mind doesn’t always mean that they pay attention to what it’s telling them.

Reading the room

Demos and presenters are expected to “read the room.” We have to be able to gauge audiences as we’re presenting to them, and adjust if they don’t seem to be responding to us. Sometimes, even virtually, the signs that they’re not responding are obvious – audiences will look at their phones or other monitors, or will give half-hearted responses.

Sometimes, the signs aren’t so obvious. The gestures are smaller. The tone changes are slight. An experienced presenter can pick up on these signals and adjust. But they’re easy to miss, especially to the untrained eye.

It’s not just about identifying when we lose the audience – we should do everything we can to prevent them from checking out in the first place. And it’s easy to lose an audience. One of the most common mistakes that a presenter makes is assuming that the audience knows things that they might not.

The curse of knowledge

Presenters typically know their software pretty well. Either they’re new, and just came off their own training, and all of the features are fresh on their minds. Or they’ve been showing the software for a long time and are a bit on autopilot.

To compound the issue, longer you use or demo your software, the more certain things are second nature. The menus, the quirks, the “robust” dashboards. The software becomes easier to use, because you know how to use it. But it’s easy to forget that others don’t.

Let’s say you’re showing your software to someone for the very first time. You show some screens and talk about how it’s “easy” and “user-friendly.” Meanwhile, the audience just stares at you, because they haven’t got a clue what you’re talking about. But they don’t want to look stupid in front of you, or their boss, so they’ll smile. Their reactions are what’s known as pluralistic ignorance – which is our tendency to assume that, if no one acts confused or asks questions, then we must be the ones who don’t understand while everyone else does.

Fast-forward a week and they probably won’t return your calls. And they definitely aren’t going to tell you that you made them feel bad during the meeting.

The curse of knowing your space

You’re a professional who sells software. You think about it all day, along with macro challenges faced by your industry. But your prospects likely don’t think about these things all day. They don’t read the latest Forrester or Gartner reports like you do. They don’t know what the latest and greatest technology can do, because they’re doing their jobs. It’s easy for us to forget that.

Back when I was selling marketing technology, I would go in and show some very cool use cases around real-time personalization. And I made the assumption that, because I’m talking to digital marketers, they knew exactly what I was talking about. But during one meeting, a prospect said “dude (yes, they called me dude), you realize it takes us a week just to get an email out the door, right? You’re 5 years ahead of us right now.”

Putting aside my obvious lack of discovery (never made that mistake again), I failed because I assumed that they knew all about the space. They’re bringing in the best vendors, so they must want to learn about the best technology. Right? Wrong. I was so far ahead of them (as were my competitors), that I unknowingly alienated my prospects. Fortunately, I’ve learned from my mistakes.

How to control for the curse of knowledge

So if you have the curse, there’s a few things that you can do to mitigate it.

1) Talk to someone who doesn’t know the space

My wife is one of the smartest people I know, but she doesn’t work with technology the way I do. However, I use this to my advantage (even if I usually drive her nuts – sorry!). If I have a big presentation coming up, or am doing something completely new, I’ll run my content by her. If I’m going above her head, that means I’m going to go over the head of other smart people who don’t know the space. She helps keep me grounded.

2) Remember your first day

You might not have someone who is able (or willing) to listen to your presentations. That’s OK – instead, always ask yourself if, on your first day, would have understood what you were talking about. More importantly, you were probably excited to take this job and work with this software. So put yourself back in the place where you were wide eyed and learning. To help you do that…

3) Record yourself

Yes, we hate the sound of our own voice. But it’s remarkable just how much we can pick up by listening to ourselves talk. My first PreSales boss made me record myself on a regular basis, and while I hated him for it (as much as anyone can hate the legendary Mike Fazio, which is to say, I was mildly annoyed at worst), the experience was invaluable. I not only caught my filler words (like, um, you know, etc), but I could hear (and eliminate from my vocabulary) buzzwords and acronyms that the audience would not know.

4) Don’t overcorrect

As the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. As you start to notice when you are going above the audience’s head, be careful how far “down” you bring the content. Start small, and then adjust. If you overcorrect, you can easily come off as condescending.

The audience isn’t going to tell you that you’re talking down to them, and if it’s subtle, they may not even consciously notice it. Instead, they’re going to start just not liking you, even if they don’t know why. This is particularly true if you have a mixed audience – if you’re white and/or male, and your audience is female and/or people of color, it’s going to be much easier for you to be viewed as patronizing your audience (especially as there is a higher likelihood that you are, unconsciously, doing just that).

Wrapping up

The more we can rely on our empathy and our theory of mind, the better we’ll be able to read our audience. The better we read and adjust to the audience, the more likely it is that we’ll make a connection. And the more we make a connection, the likelihood that we’ll close our deal goes up.

When we’re selling or presenting, we’re selling to people. People who buy from people they like. So do everything you can to ensure the audience likes you, and good things will follow.

Ed Jaffe is an experienced PreSales leader and certified Demo2Win! Master Coach. His company, Demo Solutions, works with sales and PreSales teams to help them deliver more impactful demos, so they can close deals faster. Learn more at https://demoswindeals.com.

Connect with Ed on LinkedIn.

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