What’s the real reason to hire a writer?

I’d seen all the arguments for hiring a writer, but nothing compelling – until recently.  The standard arguments all made sense.  Hire a writer who’ll do that blog post for you, so you can spend more time on growing your business. Hire a writer because they can write snappy copy that grabs attention.  All those reasons are true. But far too easily brushed aside.

Then I discovered one reason that pinned down something I’d been wrestling with for years. And it involves M&M’s.

Enter the M&Ms

Sam is six years old. Round face and curly black hair.  He’s in a bare room with a researcher. In the centre of the room is a table. On that table is an intriguing tin.

“What do you think is inside the tin?” the researcher asks Sam.  Sam sees the M&M’s label.  What’s wrong with these people, he thinks?

“M&M’s”, he says.

“Would you like to go and open the tin?”

Thought you’d never ask, thinks Sam.  He goes over, opens the tin, and inside… are plain old pencils.

The researcher closes the tin. “I’ve got two more questions for you, Sam, and then we’ll have some real M&Ms.”

A new kid walks into the room.  Kayla.  Also six.  Sandy hair and huge glasses.   Kayla blinks, getting her bearings.  The researcher introduces them, and Sam says hi, but Kayla’s eyes are already on the tin.

The researcher has a question for Sam:  “What does Kayla think is in that tin?”

“Pencils”, says Sam.

Bear in mind that Kayla is new to this.  She has no way of knowing the tin’s label is misleading. Sam has projected his own knowledge onto her.

The researcher’s final question is the real kicker, though.  “Sam, remember when you first walked into this room? What did you think was in the tin?”

And Sam says pencils.

Not only is Sam projecting his knowledge onto a Kayla — an uninitiated person — he’s forgotten what it was like for him to not know what’s in the tin.

Introducing ‘the curse of knowledge’ 

We are all like Sam, only taller.  As our brains develop, most of us get better at imagining what’s going on in other people’s minds.  Underneath all that new growth, though, our six-year old selves are still there. We never shed the bias of assuming that others see the world as we do.

Psychologists call this bias ‘the curse of knowledge.’  As we gain knowledge and experience, we learn to do amazing things.  Treat illness.  Draw up a financial plan.  Build houses.  But we forget what it’s like to not know what’s in the tin.

That’s where the curse part comes in. Sometimes knowing more than other people is a liability. When we set out to communicate what we know, our default tendency is to assume that our audience is on the same page:

The very knowledge that makes us good at our jobs
makes us bad at communicating that knowledge to others.


We’ve all seen the curse of knowledge play out.  In the last week, looking at other people’s websites, have you seen:

  • Jargon
  • Vague management-speak (like ‘delivering excellence through strategic synergies.’)
  • Information that only people inside the business would care about
  • Content that just plain makes no sense.

We don’t need to look very far to find these in others’ content.

What about your own content?

Over-confidence and American Pie

Here’s where the curse of knowledge really digs in.  We all make sense to ourselves.  We notice glitches in other people’s content, but see ourselves as the exception.  We consistently over-estimate our capacity to bridge the communications gap and get our message through.

Stanford psychologist Elizabeth Newton proved us all wrong with a simple game of ‘Guess the Melody.’  Here’s how it works.

One participant – Grahame – is given the job of tapping out a well-known melody (think ‘Happy Birthday’ or ‘American Pie’).  The other participant — Helen — has to guess the melody.

Before they start, Eizabeth asked Grahame to estimate how many melodies Helen would decipher. Grahame said 50%’.  Helen guessed 2.5%.

How did Grahame get it so wrong?

Once Grahame had the tune in his mind, he couldn’t imagine not knowing it.  The melody was so clear to him; surely Helen could hear it too.  He was tapping out his song with confidence, but Helen wasn’t picking it up.

Enter the writer

That’s the best reason to bring in a writer.  If you run a business, you’ve got knowledge and insights worth sharing.  You have an audience who are bewildered by the options. They’re waiting for credible information that speaks to their need. A good writer can look at your business from the outside.  They see what’s worth sharing.  They strip away the jargon.  They know how to translate your knowledge so it makes to sense to your audience.

A good writer knows about branding, SEO, information architecture, sentence craft and more.

But a writer’s most valuable attribute: they’re not you.

Writing for business isn’t just repairing communication break-downs, though.  What I enjoy most about my job is the opportunity to hold a mirror up to a business and reflect their value back to them.

When I get to know a business and ask a few questions, I’ll hear things that would knock potential buyers’ socks off. Things their competitors can’t touch.  When I mention this to my client, though, they’ll often say, ‘That’s just what we do.’  Their unique value is right there in front of them, but they’re so close to their business, they can’t see it.

That’s why it’s worth bringing in a writer. Next post, I’ll share my advice for how to pick a good one.

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