The curse of expertise

Why expert organisations struggle to market themselves

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex.
It takes a touch of genius - and a lot of courage - to move in the opposite direction.”
Albert Einstein

Knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

When you know a lot, you fall into the trap of assuming others do too. It’s a cognitive bias known as the ‘curse of knowledge’. And, for many expert businesses, it may just be their biggest barrier to growth.

Welcome to Muddleville

The effects of the curse are easy to spot. Visit the website of most education, research, training or consulting brands and chances are your brain will feel like it’s entered the Crystal Maze, frantically trying to crack the code.

There’ll be references to “industry leaders” offering “cutting-edge insights” underpinned by “innovative strategies” and “guiding principles”. But there’ll also be too few answers to straightforward questions, like:

  • “What do you offer?”
  • “Who is it for?”
  • “What can it do for me?”

In short, too many expert organisations have succumbed to the curse of expertise. Their proposition has become undecipherable, undifferentiated and unconvincing. The result is a brand struggling to fulfil its potential for growth.

The 4 grips of the curse

The curse of expertise is more than just a simple cognitive bias affecting smart people. It’s a powerful force preventing institutions from persuading prospects (clients, donors, partners, etc) that “this is the brand for me”.

Like a spider’s web, it might appear harmless at first – but it can easily trap unsuspecting prey. Here are 4 ways we see the curse taking hold within expert organisations:

The love of complexity
It’s fair to say experts have a soft spot for complexity. Impenetrable jargon, intricate diagrams, excessive detail – most experts are comfortable swimming in complexity (like a child who insists on staying in the pool, wrinkles be damned).

Behavioural science tells us this is hardly surprising. When faced with two competing solutions, research reveals most of us will choose the complex option. It’s called complexity bias – a hardwired human propensity to overthink and overcomplicate, if given half a chance. Is it any wonder the messaging from most expert organisations seems committed to complexity?

The fear of specificity
The devil is in the detail, as the saying goes. And for many expert leaders, that’s exactly why details are best avoided. After all, being concrete can get you backed into a corner (“you said if we did X, then Y would happen”). It can also feel reductionist (“we’re about so much more”) or even exclusive (“we’re here for everyone”). Best to stick with generalities and abstractions.

But specificity is an untapped power source for communication. Recent research shows that concrete language is more effective than abstract language at capturing attention, being memorable, creating positive associations, and driving desired action. In short, if you want your marketing materials to be persuasive – it’s time to get specific.

A 'Jekyll & Hyde' approach to sales
There is a strange disconnect between how expert leaders deliver expertise, and how they sell it. In delivery mode, the expert is Dr Jekyll – listening to the client, sharing unscripted thoughts, distilling their knowledge.

In sales mode, Mr Hyde takes over – talking too much, sounding scripted, and overwhelming the prospect with information. Check out this excellent article by author & sales coach Blair Enns on the mistaken belief that selling expertise requires a different approach from delivering it – when in reality, the opposite is true.

The individualisation of expertise
The final grip of the curse involves the ‘heroing’ of the individual expert. It’s a common challenge: a small, fast-growing business builds up a head of steam around the expertise of an individual or set of individuals, often the founders/owners.

But instead of codifying that expertise, they individualise it. Instead of developing a proprietary methodology, commissioning research, and pinning down a process…leaders build the proposition around the ‘hero’ experts. The result is an offer built on a house of sand. When those experts leave, the house starts to crumble.

Breaking the spell

There’s no shame with the curse of expertise. It’s hard to read the label from inside the jar. We realised this ourselves when the time came to refresh our own brand.

The good news? If you’re an expert organisation, you already have the main thing that matters: genuine expertise. Your challenge is convincing the rest of the world of this truth. To get there, you'll need to first break the spell of the curse over your brand.

It starts by acknowledging those biases and blind spots, and actively pushing against them. Here are some practical steps you can take:

  1. Take our Messaging Effectiveness Test – where has it got muddled and meaningless?
  2. Ask some external partners to provide honest feedback on your website or pitch deck
  3. Create a buddy system for sales meetings – one leads, the other listens (and feeds back)
  4. Invite said & done to audit your collateral against our criteria for expertise brands

We’ve helped a number of purposeful experts to shake off the curse and grow their expertise brand – learning plenty ourselves along the way.

If you’re struggling to see the wood for the trees when it comes to your pitch to the outside world, maybe it’s time to ask the honest question: “Is our expertise getting in the way?”

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