You’re Not as Good at Communicating as You Think You Are

One of the most accurate communication philosophies I’ve ever heard expressed is “I’m in a hurry, tell me slowly.” There’s not enough time in this day and age for hurried communication without context. It takes less time to communicate something clearly the first time than it does to communicate it poorly and rapidly multiple times.

I once held an entry-level position where my job involved several basic tasks. One day, I received an email from a manager at my company which contained a spreadsheet. He said simply “run the reports”. No clarification was given about frequency, report parameters, the purpose of the reports, etc. For two weeks, we went back and forth – me asking for clarification, him painfully providing as little detail as possible or correcting me when something he hadn’t communicated to me was incorrect. The experience was frustratingly inefficient.

If he had sat down with me for 30 minutes, explained the purpose and context, and set expectations, the process would have flowed smoothly. I’m reminded of Stephen Covey’s famous “Green and Clean” story.

The story below will make you re-evaluate your own communication skills. It’s taken from the book Made to Stick by Dan Heath and Chip Heath.

In 1990, Elizabeth Newton earned a Ph.D. in psychology at Stanford by studying a simple game in which she assigned people to one of two roles: “tappers” or “listeners.” Tappers received a list of twenty-five well-known songs, such as “Happy Birthday to You” and “The StarSpangled Banner.” Each tapper was asked to pick a song and tap out the rhythm to a listener (by knocking on a table). The listener’s job was to guess the song, based on the rhythm being tapped. (By the way, this experiment is fun to try at home if there’s a good “listener” candidate nearby.)

The listener’s job in this game is quite difficult. Over the course of Newton’s experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed only 2.5 percent of the songs: 3 out of 120.

But here’s what made the result worthy of a dissertation in psychology. Before the listeners guessed the name of the song, Newton asked the tappers to predict the odds that the listeners would guess correctly. They predicted that the odds were 50 percent. The tappers got their message across 1 time in 40, but they thought they were getting their message across 1 time in 2. Why?

When a tapper taps, she is hearing the song in her head. Go ahead and try it for yourself — tap out “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It’s impossible to avoid hearing the tune in your head. Meanwhile, the listeners can’t hear that tune — all they can hear is a bunch of disconnected taps, like a kind of bizarre Morse Code.

In the experiment, tappers are flabbergasted at how hard the listeners seem to be working to pick up the tune. Isn’t the song obvious? The tappers’ expressions, when a listener guesses “Happy Birthday to You” for “The Star-Spangled Banner,” are priceless: How could you be so stupid?

It’s hard to be a tapper. The problem is that tappers have been given knowledge (the song title) that makes it impossible for them to imagine what it’s like to lack that knowledge. When they’re tapping, they can’t imagine what it’s like for the listeners to hear isolated taps rather than a song. This is the Curse of Knowledge. Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has “cursed” us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind.

The tapper/listener experiment is reenacted every day across the world. The tappers and listeners are CEOs and frontline employees, teachers and students, politicians and voters, marketers and customers, writers and readers. All of these Groups rely on ongoing communication, but, like the tappers and listeners, they suffer from enormous information imbalances. When a CEO discusses “unlocking shareholder value,” there is a tune playing in her head that the employees can’t hear.

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  • Jeff Rosenbaugh August 4, 2010 at 11:26 pm

    That’s a FABULOUS book! One of the ones I really enjoyed from Grad School..

    This is an incredibly true concept and has taken on an even more drastic meaning as I now work with a lot of folks in Brazil and Kuala Lumpur. Working on a global team makes clear communication all that much more important, and stepping back and thinking about what you’re trying to communicate before you do so is imperative.

  • Derek September 27, 2010 at 11:24 am

    I believe one reason people don’t explain things thoroughly from the outset is that they don’t understand the issue themselves. They’re trying to pass the work along to someone else without investing the intellectual capital to understand it (which can be the appropriate action in many instances).

  • The Curse of Knowledge by @belllindsay Spin Sucks October 2, 2013 at 7:10 am

    […] a cool study quoted in the book relating to communication skills. In the study, there were tappers and there were listeners. The tappers had to tap out the tune of a song, on a tabletop, and the listeners had to guess the […]