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Lifting the Curse of Knowledge

Article published in the Institute of Sales Management "Winning Edge".

As salespeople, we cannot afford to confuse, frustrate or anger our prospects. Yet every day, salespeople and their colleagues the world over are causing exactly those emotions with their writing.

 

Sales proposals are often jam-packed with jargon, business speak, techno-babble and legalese, not to mention bad structure and poorly crafted language. Such documents risk misunderstanding, misinterpretation and false expectation. In the worst cases, your prospect may give up reading, unwilling to waste any more time fathoming what on earth you are offering.

 

As a proposal consultant, I edit reams of written content, often making sense of nonsense. I marvel at how people can write in such a complex, obscure and cryptic fashion. Although some authors love to show off their expertise, most are simply suffering from the curse of knowledge – labouring under the assumption that their audience has all the knowledge they have.

 

When writing a proposal, it is easy to get wrapped up in telling the prospect how marvellous we are and describing all the bells and whistles of our product or service. We completely forget to consider who is on the receiving end and whether what we are saying resonates.

 

So, let’s unravel the wonderful concept of the curse of knowledge – how it is cast, how to recognise you or your colleagues are suffering, and how to lift and banish it for forever.

 

Brewing up a potion

In embarking on this section, I openly admit that I am not a linguist or any flavour of psychologist. In short, we just need to recognise that a lot is going on in our heads that subconsciously influences how we put pen to paper. But here’s my layperson’s understanding of the complex ingredients of the curse.

 

The first ingredient is “chunking”. Chunking is one of the methods by which we learn. Think of a chunk as a building block. We assemble our knowledge bank by connecting chunks of information together into larger and more complex chunks - but we sometimes need to disassemble the chunks, so our audience can catch on.

 

Unfortunately, chunking contributes to complex writing. Imagine a banker describing quantitative easing (something few of us had heard of before the financial crash a decade ago) to another banker. It would be easy because they are at the same ‘chunk level’. Ask the same banker to explain it to a child and the communication level would have to change.

 

Quantitative easing is only comprehensible if you learn and understand the underlying chunks. Kids get buying and selling, and they’ve probably been to a market. From there you can progress to explaining about economies and policies to manage the economy and so no.

 

The second ingredient is “functional fixity”, the human trait of thinking about things in terms of their function rather than their form. Functionally a dinner plate is an object from which to eat a meal. Form-wise, it is a flat-ish, hard, round, easily cleanable surface. Functional fixity matters because it leads to abstract and conceptual writing. Take Steven Pinker’s example: “Participants were tested under conditions of good to excellent acoustic isolation” (functional) as opposed to “We tested the students in a quiet room” (form). The latter is concrete and clear.

 

Throw into the mix our four final ingredients – a dash of mindblindness (thinking someone should know something because you do), a pinch of egocentricity (being unable to see someone else's point of view), a drizzle of hindsight (thinking something is obvious because you've experienced it) and a splash of false consensus (going along with the crowd) - and you’ve got yourself a tasty potion for prosaic disaster. 

 

The curse is cast

You will know if you have been cursed if your audience fails to understand and engage with your proposal. This will typically be due to some critical symptoms of your writing: incoherence; acronyms and abbreviations; jargon and gobbledygook; complexity and clutter; and abstraction. Examine your own and your colleagues’ writing carefully to spot if you are afflicted – or better still, get an opinion from someone you trust. 

As with many things, admission is the first step to cure. If you have a positive diagnosis, read on.

 

Lifting the curse

There are some traditional remedies you can use such as “put yourself in your customer’s shoes” and “imagine the reader on your shoulder.” Who exactly is the audience – their role, their responsibility, their level of knowledge? Writing with the customer in mind is a good start.   

 

Make a working assumption that your customer is reasonably intelligent – you don’t want to dumb your writing down to a naïve and condescending level. It’s just that they may not understand things to quite the level you do.

 

With that advice in place, let’s tackle the individual symptoms.

 

Incoherence

Incoherent writing is rambling and disjointed, without logical or meaningful connections. It is typical of someone who knows exactly what they are talking about and simply dumps it onto a page. There’s no flow. There doesn’t need to be – it’s all just obvious, to them.

 

Incoherence is the first symptom to cure. A business proposal must be structured overall and by section to ensure it addresses all the customer’s points and tells your compelling story without losing the plot.

 

The best medicine for incoherence is a content plan. Think of it as a skeleton that you will flesh out – the bones give it shape and hold it together. Take the time to work out the overall story you want to tell, decide on the sections and the key messages, gather ideas for content that will fit in each section. Check with colleagues that the skeleton is the right shape before crafting the body.

 

Acronyms and abbreviations

Contractions and initials are like spots – they pop up everywhere and need treating individually. No matter how obvious they are to you, always expand acronyms and abbreviations the first time and show the short form in brackets afterwards. Don’t leave your customer guessing if ARMS stands for Aviation Resource Management System or an Automated Records Management System or one of almost 200 other options. In a proposal with many sections that may be split up amongst evaluators, repeat this for each section. And consider if a glossary would help.

 

Jargon and gobbledygook

At the heart of the curse, we will find words or expressions used by a profession or group that are difficult for others to understand. These words and expressions get spun into language rendered meaningless to the layperson. Check out the example below from Steven Pinker, which simply means “the more you eat, the fatter you get”.

 

“There is a significant positive correlation between measures of food intake and body mass index. Body mass index is an increasing function of food intake. Food intake predicts body mass index according to a monotonically increasing relation.”

 

Remember George Orwell’s writing rule: “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.” Make sure you write in plain English. If you need to use a specialist term, follow it with a short explanation and an example.

 

Complexity and clutter

“Such preparations shall be made as will completely obscure all Federal Buildings and non-Federal buildings occupied by the Federal government during an air raid for any period of time from visibility by reason of internal or external illumination.”

US Government draft order

The curse of knowledge tends to cause prosaic diarrhoea - long sentences with pompous and unnecessary words in abundance. Try this wonderful example on the right. When President Roosevelt saw the draft order above, he instructed: “Tell them, that in buildings where they have to keep the work going to put something across the windows."

 

Focus on getting paragraphs down to one key point and sentences to a sensible average (15-20). In the words of the eminent Professor William Strunk, “omit needless words”, whether they be adverbs, adjectives or other fluff and bluster. If you choose your words wisely, you can still achieve some personality in your writing and get your point across.

To test yourself, use software that will give you readability statistics – there are various options based on algorithms that assess how easy your prose is to read according to parameters such as sentence length and syllables.

 

 

Abstraction

 

To kill off our final curse symptom, we need to eliminate abstraction. Remember functional fixity? It leads to writing about generalities, ideas, concepts or characteristics. In business proposals, we need to write about real things - objects, events and people. We need to use concrete language with examples and be clear about who is doing what, to whom, when, why and how.

 

Ward off the curse forever

Having taken all the pills – or got your colleagues to take them - you should be feeling better, and so should your customers. Your proposal successes should start to increase.

 

Before you breathe a sigh of relief, don’t forget, it’s easy for the curse to come back. To ward it off forever, keep taking the medicine. Read more. And learn about writing – there are plenty of great books and videos out there.

 

Check yourself. Take a break, then go back and read your writing again before editing. For a really effective test, try reading out loud.

 

But there is a limit how far you can edit your own work, so get an independent check-up. Get someone else to read it – someone in your field can assess accuracy and completeness; someone outside your field can review it for readability and comprehension.

 

And remember the readability statistics – always a useful test. This article is suitable for a 15-year old – about the right level for a proposal.

 

Oh, and for extra protection, you can always find a white witch - like me!

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