Overcoming the Knowledge Curse

In Margin Call, Jeremy Irons plays the CEO of an investment firm that’s about to go under because they have a problem so complex, most of the staff doesn’t understand it. At 2 a.m. Irons says, “Maybe you could tell me what is going on. And please, speak as you might to a young child. Or a golden retriever. It wasn’t brains that brought me here; I assure you that.”

People with great expertise often find themselves unable to explain what they are doing to anyone else. This is because the brain’s shortcuts for storing and organizing complex information create barriers to communicating clearly to anyone else.

We see this happen in our work all the time. For example, SGA did public outreach for a regional infrastructure project. When residents told our clients they were afraid the project could trigger landslides, our clients waved them off. To our clients — a team of engineers who’d spent years on this project studying the geology and consulting with even more specialized experts — landslides were clearly not an issue.

However, this answer only angered residents. The engineers were so in the weeds on the technical issues, they completely missed the real question, the emotional side of the community’s worries. They were saying: “Don’t worry about landslides. We are the experts. If landslides were a problem, we would tell you.” But what the community heard was a lack of concern and condescension.

When we were brought in we worked with them on that real underlying question – the community’s worries. Instead of framing the question around the technical issue, “what is the probability of a landslide.” We shifted their answer to an agreement about the concern… “We too are concerned about landslides and that is why we brought in experts and have extensively studied this issue and here is what we found…”

This helped them address the broader issue and more importantly the emotions of the question and not just the technical information. In the next community meeting, the reaction had flipped almost 180 degrees from feeling disrespected and angry to one of gratitude and appreciation.

Engineers, scientists, lawyers, accountants and other experts fill the ranks of government and are who we usually work for. Many clients are like those engineers: So immersed in their expertise, it’s understandably hard to put themselves in the shoes of people who haven’t had their training or experience.

Harvard Psychology Professor, Steven Pinker, who studies language and the mind says it is common for experts to have trouble communicating what they know. It’s called “the curse of knowledge.” It happens because the same mental processes that help experts organize data in their brains get in the way of their ability to present what they know to others.

One of these tactics is called “chunking,” a process “in which we package groups of concepts into ever further abstraction in order to save space in our brain,” according to a The Farnam Street Blog’s post on Pinker’s findings.

Another reason why this emerges is through jargon. Language short-cuts within a given expertise. Jargon is often looked down upon, but it is actually very valuable. Where it becomes problematic is when those in the know (Curse of Knowledge) are speaking to people outside of the field and the language becomes meaningless.

When the government starts educating people in neighborhoods about a new project, the knowledge gap can be immense. The city officials know everything about the project, and are comfortable speaking about it amongst themselves in their private language. But good communication is all about knowing your audience and breaking the “curse” (of knowledge), so your audience understands you.

With help from Professor Pinker, here are six of SGA’s best practices to overcome “the knowledge curse.”

  1.  What is your audience’s concern? Look at the issue from their point of view. Relate the issue to their narrative of how they see things
  2. If you must use technical terms, define them.
  3. Use concrete examples.  Remove abstractions from the conversation by providing an example that someone can visualize. The better they can see what you are talking about the easier it is for them to understand.
  4. Spell out acronyms at least once. Never assume your reader knows what the acronyms stand for.
  5. Ask you answering the right question.When we are steeped in solving a problem and creating solutions we are usually answering the question HOW? How do we build something, how do we draft the policy, etc. But when an outside audience is engage they usually ask questions about WHY? Or WHAT? Why is this important to me or What do I need to do next. When we talk to an audience outside our field answering the right question is easy to miss.
  6. Get a second set of eyes to read over your presentation and see if they understand it. According to Pinker, “The form in which thoughts occur to a writer is rarely the same as the form in which they can be absorbed by the reader.”

For more insights on communications, here are some other recent recommendations to articles and books that have recently inspired us at SGA:

A still very relevant summary of current research into the social evolutionary reasons behind human irrationality, by one of our favorite New York Times writers, Elizabeth Kolbert.

“Providing people with accurate information doesn’t seem to help; they simply discount it. Appealing to their emotions may work better, but doing so is obviously antithetical to the goal of promoting sound science.The `challenge that remains is to figure out how to address the tendencies that lead to false scientific belief.”

  • On the topic of public sector communications challenges, check out the Planet Money Podcast Episode on why the State of California couldn’t get eligible state residents to sign up for what was, in effect, free money.

Using Emotional Connections With Audiences to Create a Successful Digital Marketing Campaign

At the digital  California Stormwater Quality Association (CASQA) Virtual Conference, this fall, SGA debuted a poster for the San Bernardino County Stormwater Program’s annual Valentine Gram Canister campaign. 2020 was the second consecutive year of the Program’s campaign, where dog owner subscribers to the Program could send a free digital valentine gram to a friend that contained a link to a free dog waste bag canister. This year, the Program offered a special heart-shaped canister clip along with the canister during the month of February.

In the campaign’s first year, the Program sent out 268 free canisters. This year, the campaign saw a 51% jump to 405 canisters requested and distributed. The goal of this campaign was to get new dog owners opted into the Program in a more organic way. We wanted to get our subscribers excited about the campaign and get them to share about it with their friends, who would take their recommendations to opt into our campaign far more seriously than any of our ads. As a matter of fact, the Program does zero advertising for the campaign — just the enewsletter to its mailing list — and otherwise, it’s spread by word of mouth. As for stormwater messaging, the canisters come with a note from Spot, the Program’s mascot, that reminds its new canister owners to clip the canister to their leash and thanks them for keeping our waterways free from pet waste.

With a fun incentive and attractive campaign branding, a friendly message from dog mascot Spot, and an easy-to-follow workflow that lets subscribers send a message to their friend, the SBC Stormwater Program used a campaign to get residents excited while promoting the social norm and usage of picking up after your pet.

Social Distancing & Behavior Change

6 feet, 3 Canadian geese, 2 meters or one alligator apart.

With the sad news of a recent spike in COVID-19 cases in LA County, the continued reminder to stay 6 feet apart is ever more important. As some normalcy slowly returns (well…in fits and starts!), getting new behaviors to stick long-term is the next big global experiment. And a challenge it will be as quarantine fatigue increases and shaming people doesn’t work.
So far, it has been interesting to see how the three key factors for effective behavior change have been used:

1. Short and Sweet Reminders Stick

When a new behavior, like staying 6 feet apart, goes against our innate social nature (who doesn’t want to hug their friends or enjoy a social summer BBQ!) behavior change can only be truly effective when its reminders are simple and easy to remember.
Although we still have so much to learn about COVID-19’s transmission (with new findings coming every day), the blanket rule of staying 6 feet apart (or washing your hands for the amount of time it takes to sing Happy Birthday twice) helps people to change as we do so. But an aphorism is just the first step. We are visual species and, in reality, many have found it hard to know exactly how far apart 6 feet is.

2. Iconography for Impact

People remember 80% of what they see and do, and only 20% of what they read. Given how much more powerful a visual can be than words, it has been interesting to see the creativity some countries have used to try to visually reinforce the 6 feet rule. Canada especially has been on top form:

Source: globalnews.ca/news/6969090/coronavirus-social-distancing-2/

3. Storytelling: “If I look at the mass, I will never act.” (Mother Theresa)

It’s easy to feel apathetic when one hears a statistic, but when one hears a story from a nurse, it helps humanize the overwhelming pace, scale and complexity of the COVID-19 pandemic. Stories help us build empathy. We humans take action because of emotions, not because of numbers.
The right image can tell an entire story. The images of frontline workers, at the start of the pandemic forced to wear trash bags as makeshift PPE shows so much more – their sheer grit, dedication, sacrifices, missed time with their own families and the stress and grief they face every single day.

Source: CNN.com March 26, 2020

So much of our work at SGA right now is testing and applying communication techniques in what has been a worldwide experiment in getting social distancing to stick. We have focused on helping our clients adjust their messaging to fit in with our new long term reality (such as the dilemma of reusable grocery bag bans!).
In this uncertain time, my hope for us Angelenos is that we continue to figure out together how to counter quarantine fatigue and keep the crucial importance of social distancing top of mind for everyone.
From my makeshift kitchen table/office, staying socially close and one caribou apart.

-Stephen Groner-

light colored dog laying in green grass; baby with blond hair has hands on the dog and is looking at the dog
This past ad campaign we did for the Contra Costa Clean Water Program showcases the power of having the right visceral visual. Want to see more examples from our work? Read our recent blog article on the Power of Visuals Over Words.

Hero Photo Source: www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/04/canada-yukon-coronavirus-caribou?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

The Power of Visuals Over Words

If you read a statistic that 40% of the U.S. population are at risk of disease and premature death because of air pollution, most likely you would think, “Wow, that is a high number, I can’t imagine what someone must be going through who experiences that!” But if this same statistic is paired with a photo of someone on a respirator, immediately it feels so much more personal. With an image, we are better able to grasp the individual human suffering behind an overwhelmingly large statistic like this.

Humans are wired to connect more with images than words, because 90% of the information processed by the brain is visual. Words are abstract, visuals are concrete. This means that humans process images far quicker than words; we remember visuals better; and an image is a far more accessible way for us to communicate.

These facts underlie so much of how we approach our communication work here at SGA and can be seen below in two examples from our work:

Visuals increase the speed of understanding

Humans process visuals far quicker than we do words. It only takes us 150ms for a symbol to be processed and 100ms to attach a meaning to it. This is a reason why so many road signs are image based—they quickly capture what a few words or sentences would take far longer to communicate.

Our Contra Costa Clean Water Program Example: Given this, our client, the Contra Costa Clean Water Program, needed an image based public education campaign to encourage residents to use integrated pest management. Integrated pest management is a complicated topic to communicate as, even though its long term environmental benefits are very evident, it can take longer in the short term to get rid of pests compared to traditional pesticides.

Our approach: Most of us (really!) don’t like pests in our homes and backyards. In our research, we found that people prioritized getting rid of the pests as quickly as possible and that they saw the time and effort required by integrated pest management as a major barrier. The only way to break though this perceived barrier was with an even stronger motivator—our love and concern for the health and wellbeing of our pets and children. This strategy informed our image choices for the ‘Pesticide Linger’ ad campaign.

The right image meant that we did not need to describe all of the dangers of using pesticides on a family’s beloved baby and dog for the audience to be compelled. The image told the story—and our connection to images made this message far stronger than what words could describe (image referenced is at the beginning of this piece).

Visuals that resonate with your own beliefs are often far more memorable and help increase accessibility.

Images are compelling and often far more easy for us to recall. In fact, people remember 80% of what they see and do, whereas only 20% of what they read. People also all learn and process information differently. To communicate as broadly as possible, images help increase the accessibility of your content to your audience.

Our County of Santa Clara Example: The County of Santa Clara was struggling with the problem of abandoned used motor oil becoming an environmental health hazard, especially given how much easier it is to dump used oil instead of dispose of it properly.

Our approach: We knew that in order for a campaign and its imagery to resonate, it needed to be representative. So, we first had to understand the practices, beliefs and attitudes concerning
used motor oil within the Santa Clara community. To do this, we interviewed community members outside of auto supply stores. Our key finding was how family-centric this community was. Explaining the potential impact of used motor oil on this community’s environment and the health of its children ultimately informed the campaign tagline: “Dumped Used Oil and We All Get Soaked.”

The aim behind the choice of image for this campaign was to connect the ease of dumping used oil with the visceral horror of an image of a child stepping into a pool of oil. By understanding the target audience, customizing the campaign to suit them and using a memorable image, San Jose of Santa Clara County saw a 136% increase in used oil recycling and a 70% decrease in illegal dumping at the end of the campaign.

Reinforcing our communication with the right visuals helps counter the “information overload” in our everyday lives. Visuals are powerful, compelling, accessible, and align with how people want to receive messaging nowadays.

A Lesson from COVID-19 for Earth Day

The spread of COVID-19 has resulted in arguably one of the largest mass behavior changes in human history. Its ripple effects have impacted every aspect of our daily lives.

From reminding people that only toilet paper is flushable (#WipesClogPipes), to helping people get child support after losing a job, to educating them on how to store household hazardous waste while HHW centers are closed, we have been working with our clients to help their communities adapt to this once-in-a-generation event.

Cognitive psychology research shows that people are far more willing to change under uncertainty when they are confronted by concrete and relatable concepts, rather than abstract ones. I certainly know that for myself and my family, the consequences of COVID-19 feel tangible, urgent, and scary.
In contrast, climate change is, for most people, still very much an abstract concept. So much of the work we do at SGA is using market research to figure out how to make this concept and long-term environmental issues personal, urgent, and actionable to every community.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we are inspired by the speed of global behavior change in recent weeks. This pandemic stands as a profound example that global environmental behavior change is possible and that the goals of Earth Day are achievable.

For all our government and non-profit friends, if you need a sounding board or just want to talk through how you will adjust, please feel free to reach out (SGA is providing assistance as a way of giving back during this time of crisis).

Physically Apart but Together as a Community

The evolving COVID-19 pandemic presents unique difficulties for people everywhere- we are all living in unchartered territory and with unprecedented worry. While we all stand tall in the face of this challenge, this season has also been a visceral reminder of how interconnected we are.
This concept is the very keystone of SGA’s work.
Everyday and in every single moment, we are now reminded that a sneeze can have a ripple effect through one’s entire community. Likewise, one’s individual daily actions, from recycling to not pouring engine oil down a storm drain, all help the greater good. Positive behavior change is built on the power of solidarity. As we all adjust to these profound social and economic changes, our hope is that this renewed appreciation for our fragile web of interconnectedness is protected.
Community engagement and connection, even with the hurdle of physical distancing, is as important as ever.
If you need a sounding board, or just the time to just talk through how to adjust, we would like to offer our help (at our expense as a way to give back during this time). SGA is here to stand with you as we maneuver through this season of uncertainty together.

Spinning 3 Websites in 6 Months

Good web design is like a spider web: what appears to be simple, functional, and delicate should also be intricate, elegant, and strong. And like an excited spider who’s just caught an unlucky fly, web design is one of those things that gets our team really fired up.

It requires the perfect mix of left and right brain — from planning the overall architecture of a site, to considerations about user experience and design, to coding and the final, fine-toothed top to bottom review. Over the last 6 months, 3 sites that we designed from the ground-up have gone live. These websites have ranged in complexity, breadth, and purpose. Keep reading to find out why we spun them!

1) RethinkWaste

RethinkWaste represents and manages the waste from 12 member cities in San Mateo County. SGA was brought on to redesign its website to improve usability and meet the communication needs of its service area community. After designing this new website from the ground up, here’s what Rethink had to say about us:

[box] “SGA, specifically the amazing Suzi, helped us not only meet our needs with an aesthetically pleasing and easy to navigate website on the front and back end, but they also created a custom section to house our important meeting agendas and staff reports. This has helped us improve our transparency as a public agency. Our new and improved website communicates, educates and engages with our community better than ever before.” — Julia Au, Outreach & Communications Manager, Rethink Waste[/box]

2) Lincoln Stormwater

The City of Lincoln’s Stormwater program used to be hosted on a small subsection of the City’s website. SGA was brought in to create a dynamic hub for stormwater-related information, resources, and content relevant to the city residents. In addition to the new website, which we designed to deliver simple, easy-to-understand messaging about stormwater management, we designed a new logo to cement the program’s credibility and integrity.

3) Bayfront Canal & Atherton Channel Flood Management and Restoration Project

The last site SGA recently worked on is a microsite for a flood management project occurring within several diverse communities that are subjected to annual flooding. The purpose of the site was to establish an official, designated area where the County of San Mateo could post project updates, and where residents could visit for up-to-date and reliable information. The site needed to be designed in a user-friendly way that remained intuitive across diverse audiences, clearly communicated the problem and proposed solution, and reduced the potential for uncertainty. You can view our work here.

Like our sites? Want to know more about their structure, our process, or availability to design your dream site? We’re listening! Email us at info@sga-inc.net.

How to Avoid Being Mistaken for SPAM

Now that I’ve got your mouth watering, I’m here to tell you something less savory: only about 85% of the emails you send in your newsletter campaign actually reach the inboxes you’ve sent them to. That means that a whopping 15% of all the emails you send get flagged as spam and filed away in the dreaded “spam folder” (even when you’re not attempting to blackmail strangers in exchange for bitcoin). So how do you get past tough spam filters and land safely in the inboxes of your audience? Keep reading and we’ll tell you!

There are over 150 known reasons that emails can be flagged as spam and these are changing all the time—even words like “Dear” can trigger spam filters. Beyond your choice of words, there are lots of small inclusions that will result in your emails being flagged as spam. Whether it’s sending emails too frequently (or too infrequently), designing emails that aren’t mobile responsive, or emails with too many images—ever-changing spam laws can feel impossible to keep up with.

So, what can you do? The first thing you might want to consider is email authentication. Authentication basically tells your Internet Service Provider (ISP) that emails are coming from your brand. If you’re interested, SPF & DKIM are the Gold Standard for email authentication; if you’re lucky enough to have a subscriber list that’s over 50,000 you’ll want to authenticate with DMARC. But make no mistake: authentication is only the bare minimum needed to make sure your emails are not marked as spam.

Once your email is authenticated, you’ll want to constantly work to improve your reputation data. Reputation data lies at the micro-level of each subscriber and is based on your relationship with that subscriber. Depending on both the actions of the email recipient and your actions as a sender, your reputation data will either build in a positive or negative direction. The following scenarios outline how particular actions relate to your reputation data:

Very Positive Signal

Positive Signal

Negative Signal

  • The recipient responds to your email.
  • The recipient moves your email to a designated folder.
  • The recipient opens your emails consistently.
  • The recipient clicks around your emails.
  • The recipient forwards your email to someone else.
  • The recipient deletes your email without opening it.
  • The recipient marks your email as spam without opening it.

If you notice engagement drop, or that a lot of your subscribers aren’t opening your emails, you could develop a poor sender reputation which could start to trigger spam filters. A “re-engagement campaign” is an effective way to prevent this from happening. “Re-engagement” essentially entails sending an email that asks the inactive people on your list if they’re still interested in your content.  It can look something like this one we designed for a client:

Recipients that don’t respond to the email are removed from your list. Cleaning your list will momentarily decrease your number of subscribers, but your reputation data is likely to improve. When it comes to sending emails and measuring engagement, remember this: quality emails sent to a slightly smaller but more interested audience will garner more impressive results than frequent emails sent to a disengaged list.

The last thing you can do to decrease the chance of inadvertently designing spammy emails is to consider user experience. Design your emails with the knowledge that engaging subject lines, readable layouts (design mobile first), personalized emails, and organic email lists (avoid buying lists) will improve your access to inboxes as much as authentication will.

As spam filters become further refined we’ll all have to worry about having our emails misdirected away from inboxes less and less, but for now, we’re lucky enough to have these solutions!

Was this article helpful? Let us know what you think by emailing us at info@sga-inc.net.

What’s Your Watershed Moment?


As SGA’s first and longest-standing clients, the Los Angeles Stormwater Program (LASW) has accomplished a lot in terms of educating the LA city residents about stormwater pollution prevention. Most recently, SGA helped LASW create a series of whiteboard videos to help residents discover their watershed moment.

The series features six videos, the majority of them being 30 seconds or shorter. These bite-sized animated shorts each had a singular focus to ensure that the messages were clear, educational, and impactful. One explains what watersheds are and the importance of protecting them, while the others each discuss one of the top five pollutants (as identified by the California Coastal Commission): dog waste, used oil, over-watering, pesticides, and litter. Each video is about a person who didn’t understand how their behavior affected the environment and then learning about a simple change that could make a big impact. The medium of whiteboard animation was chosen because of its slow reveal. The viewer incrementally sees the design elements build upon one another until the final “big picture” is revealed. This method allows viewers to learn at the same pace that the videos teach while watching the story develop.

Once the videos were created and published to the LASW YouTube page, the next step was getting it in front of the community. SGA launched a promotional Google Ads campaign which lasted six weeks, achieving 10.8K views for all six videos at a minimal cost of only 4-5 cents per view. This strategic campaign allowed us to exceed the initial goal of 1,000 views per video by understanding the target audience for each video, the time of day that audience would be most effectively reached, and the proper ad format that would be most engaging.

Not only do these videos continue to educate LA residents, they are also being used as a training aide at the LA Stormwater Program call center, which handles pollution prevention-related calls from residents. Check out the videos below and discover your watershed moment!

5 Effective Persuasion Techniques

In a world of logic, persuasion would be a lost art. To state your case, you’d simply make an argument grounded in facts, trends, and case studies, and voilà, people would do the right thing. Litterbugs would learn that 80% of the trash floating around in our oceans starts on land, and—just like that—they’d never toss another gum wrapper on the sidewalk.
In reality, however, getting people to actually change their attitude and/or behavior requires finesse. The ultimate goal of every public outreach campaign is behavior change. By using the Community-based Social Marketing methodology at SGA, we’ve become pretty savvy on the best ways to get people to act differently.  Whether you’re trying to save the planet, convince your boss to kick in for a raise, or persuade your sister to watch your dogs for the weekend, these four techniques will help you get results.

Remember the rule of three.  People can hold a limited amount of information in our short term memory. Three bits of data is about the max, before we start getting fuzzy. What’s more, when we have to choose between too many options, we tend to get frustrated and back off from making a decision at all. Stick to threes. When crafting an argument or a message, give three reasons. When asking someone to make a decision, give only three options.

Establish a common ground. Science has shown we relate more strongly to people like us. This includes personal characteristics like gender, race, age and values, as well as seemingly random similarities. One study found that people were more likely to complete a survey when asked by someone with a similar name (e.g., Cindy Johnson and Cynthia Johanson) than a completely different one.

Say it simply. There are two key parts to this one. First, when you want something, just ask. We tend to think persuasion means trickery (it doesn’t) and that makes us weave an elaborate narrative instead of just coming out with it. And second, say it using straightforward, commonly used language. There’s no need to dust off the SAT vocabulary list to prove you’re deserving or intelligent or committed. Complicated language is more likely to confuse (and annoy) whoever you’re trying to convince.

Monkey see, monkey do. People tend to follow others (bandwagon effect) more when they don’t have sufficient information to make a decision on their own. Telling or showing your audience other people who are engaging in a similar behavior may make the difference. This could be done by spotlighting community champions in the area or getting a list of testimonials or endorsements for your cause.

Take the glass half full approach. Working on environmental issues means we come across a lot of heartbreaking data. From the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to the alarming rate of coral reef extinction worldwide, we’re up to our ears in the dark side of the story. But when we’re trying to change behavior in lasting ways, we stay positive. People want to feel good about the decisions they make. Focus on how their small action makes a huge difference or how this one change benefits them and aligns with their personal goals and criteria.