Have you ever had someone try to explain something to you but instead of feeling informed you just felt either more confused or none the wiser? Meanwhile, the other person thought they did a perfectly good job.

A study conducted by a lady called Elizabeth Newton at Stanford University in 1990 not only earned her a Ph.D, but also explains why listeners often feel this way.

Ms. Newton created a simple game in which she assigned people to one of two roles: “tappers” or “listeners.” The tappers were given a list of  well-known songs, such as “Happy Birthday to You” and “The Star Spangled 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.

Over the course of the experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed only 2.5 percent of the songs. That’s 3 out of 120. Here’s what makes that figure significant. Before the listeners guessed the name of the song, Newton asked the tappers to predict how many songs the listeners would guess correctly. The prediction was 50 percent. So the tappers thought they would get their message across 1 time in 2. In reality the message got through just 1 time in 40.

Why the huge difference? Pick a well known song and try tapping it out yourself. You’ll find you can clearly hear the tune in your own mind. Meanwhile all anyone else listening can hear is a bunch of disconnected taps. Likewise, in the experiment, the tappers were amazed at how hard it was for the listeners to pick up the tune. They thought the song was obvious and became frustrated with the listeners if they couldn’t work it out.

Once we know something (in this case the song) it becomes almost impossible for us to imagine what it’s like to lack that knowledge. In the experiment the tappers can’t imagine what it’s like for the listeners to hear isolated taps rather than a song. 

What this means for us as communicators in the real world is that we can’t replicate our listeners’ state of mind in our own mind but we do need to be aware of it and allow for it. If we don’t, then we will be met with blank faces when we try to explain whatever it is we want to get across.

There are ‘tappers and listeners’ everywhere. The tappers and listeners are marketers and customers, experts and novices, parents and children, bosses and employees, trainers and students, and many more relationships where one side holds most of the knowledge.

In order to communicate our knowledge or ‘have our song heard’ we need to think carefully about how we can recreate the tune in our listeners minds rather than assuming they are hearing it just as well as we are.  

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