Fast Research for Internet Marketers: Faking the T-Shaped Knowledge Set

Ian Lurie

Everyone knows I’m normally a diplomatic guy…


OK, now that you’ve sputtered coffee all over your keyboard: Somewhere, sometime in our professional lives, we’ve all been confronted with idiocy in the form of lazy ignorance:

“Ignorance” = Not knowing the answer. Which happens to all of us.

“Lazy” = An ‘expert’ deciding ignorant is just fine and providing a completely incorrect answer or no answer at all.

Lazy ignorance kills smart decisions and usually appears as an answer that sucks all intelligence out of the room. For example:

“Our customers aren’t on Facebook”
“That CSS change will take us 3 months”
“We just need to crank out blog posts”
“Well, nyah nyah our consultant posted a question about this on Twitter so clearly she doesn’t know either phhbbbt”

Statements like that are usually some kind of knee-jerk mental spasm. The resident ‘expert’ couldn’t come up with an answer, so they coughed up a hairball. When that happens, you have three options:

  • Get so frustrated your head explodes, spraying gray matter and skull shrapnel over the entire conference room: Not great for your career prospects, and very hard on the wardrobe.
  • Kick the responsible party in the shins and run for it. Very therapeutic. But also not great for your career.
  • Find the right answer, right away: If no one knows the answer and everyone else is lazy, you’re going to have to find the answer and solve the problem. Fast.

Option 3 most often works. Deliver the right answer right then, when everyone’s thinking about it and most receptive and you’ve got the best chance for a good outcome. To do that, you need a complete T-shaped knowledge set. You have every answer to every question the team might ask. But that’s impossible. Sooooo, what do you do?

You fake it. You come up with the right answer right then and there, even if it’s not embedded in your neurons. Here’s how I fake the perfect T-shaped knowledge set:

Stack Exchange and Similar Sites

Look for the answer online. Be careful: Some sites are manure piles of bad information. To avoid them, I have a few favorites. First on the list is Stack Exchange. It’s a humungous collection of sites with answers. Answers to just about everything. Want to know how to set up Internet Information Server to return correct page not found responses? Here you go. Need to toilet train a rat? Check out this page.

I like Stack Exchange because the social voting structure is pretty solid and discussions tend to self-moderate. Good answers are consistently voted up. My tips:

  • Look at multiple answers. Make sure they’re reasonably consistent. You can have a few outliers, but most answers should match.
  • Search before you ask. I can’t remember the last time I didn’t find the answer I needed on Stack Exchange. Don’t load the site up with duplicate questions. Search thoroughly, first.
  • Check the dates. Best practices change for web development, gardening and toilet training rats. Make sure the answer you find is recent. Don’t worry about the date of the question. It’s the date of the most recent answer that counts!

Here’s a great question and answer. Lots of votes:

A question on Stack Overflow

A question on Stack Overflow

Dang. It was asked six years ago.

Oops, it's an old one
Oops, it's an old one

Oops, it's an old one

Given how fast things change, this may not be helpful. But wait! The discussion, good and bad, is still going on (most recent comment in June, 2015):

But that's OK, people are still using it
But that's OK, people are still using it

But that's OK, people are still using it

Even if folks are still having issues with the answers, they’re working through them. That discussion can be as helpful as the answers themselves. And you can always come back for help. So this answer’s worth a read.

I also like and (gasp) Google. But Stack Exchange is my go-to. Chances are, if you search on Google, you’ll find Stack Exchange sites at the top of the rankings.

Books at your fingertips

Books. They’re still around. I use books to get answers on everything from psychology to solar panel performance. But people often forget the resources that are lying within arm’s reach. Before you hit Amazon, check the shelves around the expert’s office. Ask your client if they can loan you their favorite volume. They won’t think you’re ignorant. They’ll love that you’re putting in the effort to learn.

If I can’t find information nearby, my go-to is ebooks. You can buy, download and search them in a few minutes. You can get the Kindle Reader for your laptop, phone or tablet and have the book in your virtual pocket right away. For technical stuff, buy a membership on Safari Books Online. A $39/month membership means you can download books, videos, training, etc. across their library.

Just please pay for them. Stealing is worse than idiocy.

The manual

Everything comes with a manual. Some are better than others.

The Comcast remove user manual. Shudder.
The Comcast remove user manual. Shudder.

The Comcast remove user manual. Shudder.

But people are far too quick to pooh-pooh the manual. The closer you get to the end user, the more you want to check the manual. For example, if you’re using a content management system, search Google for

name of product” manual OR documentation OR help

If the manual is digital text, like a searchable PDF, search it. If it’s scanned pages (ridiculous, but I still see them) import it into Acrobat and search it. I’ve found manuals helpful when working with content management systems, e-commerce sites or any other third-party toolset.

Ask the question

“What else? Anyone have anything to add?”

In the presence of lazy ignorance, folks are afraid to offer alternatives. The expert has spoken, after all. So throw the question open. Asking if anyone has anything to add lets people get into the discussion without directly challenging the first answer. It gives everyone permission to expand and introduce their own opinions.

The knowledge base

If you run into a question + ignorant + lazy situation, record the question. I use Evernote but anything from text files to personal wikis will do the trick. Record the answer when you find it. You record the knowledge and build your expertise. You also put that knowledge at your fingertips without taking up what I call squishy storage: Your brainspace.

Here’s mine. I’ve got everything from regular expressions to sales pitch ideas. Further down are tips on what I can and can’t feed the family guinea pig (alfalfa hay is a no-no) and my son’s cell phone password (I’m one of those dads). They’re all questions where someone shrugged and said, “I dunno.”

My Evernote knowledge base
My Evernote knowledge base

My Evernote knowledge base

Next time, you’ll be that much quicker and confident answering that particular question. You’re no longer faking the T-shaped knowledge set. You’ve built it.

The real point

Seek out and smash lazy ignorance. These tips may help. But most important, learn to do research and store answers on-the-fly as well as after the fact. Learn to find the answers you need. Know where to look. That’s what gives us essential information independence and separates great thinkers from lazy ‘experts.’

Oh, yeah: Got any resources to share? Go for it in the comments:

Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is the founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (that's more than 25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team, training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at

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