How good intentions become bad communications

How good intentions become bad communications

Reading Time: 3 minutes

It’s 1990, and a Stanford University graduate student in psychology named Elizabeth Newton is using a game to test how people communicate.

She’s assigned students roles of ‘tappers’ and ‘listeners’ and asked the tappers to pick a well-known song and tap the song on a table. Next, the listeners have to guess the song.

Then, before the listeners guess, she asks the tappers to predict how likely the listeners will get the song right. They think 50% of the time. But when the listeners’ guesses get collated from 120 songs, they’re only correct one time in forty rather than one in two. What’s going on?

According to Made to Stick authors Dan and Chip Heath, it’s called the ‘curse of knowledge.

“The problem is that once we know something—say, the melody of a song—we find it hard to imagine not knowing it. Our knowledge has “cursed” us. We have difficulty sharing it with others, because we can’t readily re-create their state of mind.”

Fast forward to the mountain of messages people send across organisations every day. In my head, I know what I know. I’ve likely spent months or even years working to understand it. And I’m tapping away like mad, frustrated when my message goes nowhere, or worse, gets the opposite reaction than I wanted.

Tap, tap, tap.

Bosses talking about business strategy to coworkers.
Doctors talking to patients about what that headache might mean.
Salespeople talking to customers about how a product works.
Teachers sharing a child’s tantrum with the parents.
Designers explaining why that much information on a page is a bad idea.
Me talking to my husband about what I did today …

Getting out of my own way so my message sticks, requires becoming the listener. Here are some tricks of the trade.

  • Record yourself and play it back, listening for what the hell was I talking about?’ moments.
  • Run it past someone who won’t know what you know. A confused dog face is a good clue you’ve still got work to do.
  • Ditch the jargon and spell out acronyms — the ultimate ‘tapper’ words. They both create barriers, even if your message is for someone who might know what they are.
  • Shoot for simple, but don’t trade clarity. Look for the sweet spot between generic motherhood statements and War and Peace.
  • Make it concrete and visual. ‘Big’ is ok but abstract, while ‘colossal’ paints a picture.

Layered on my ‘curse of knowledge’ is the other sin of communicating all over people. Pouring gallons of words and oodles of information at every opportunity.

Stop drowning people in words. Click Here.

Focusing on what I want to say, not what’s relevant for you to hear. And bloating content until it simply drowns the poor recipient and any hope of a successful outcome.

Writer Helen Sword takes particular umbrage to overwhelming content. In her handy book “The Writer’s Diet“, she says,

“Far too many writers send their best ideas out into the world on brittle-boned sentences weighted down with rhetorical flab.”

And while you may not think Sword’s comment for writers applies to you. We all communicate every day, and a chunk of that is in writing. How many emails did you send yesterday?

So, I recommend and give away copies of this book at every opportunity. Grab a copy. Its pithy 73 pages will transform how you communicate.

And how well you communicate plays a significant part in how your brand accumulates value. Doing it badly is a barrier to people knowing what you care about. It’s true for the shiny, high profile and everyday unheroic stuff, coworkers, customers, and others alike.

Long-time collaborator and free range writer Nance Hellmrich says, “Writing is an act of generosity to the reader”. When framed in broader terms, communicating is an act of generosity to the recipient.

I can’t know what’s going on for people when my message lands on them. However, the ‘curse of knowledge’ and ‘communicating all over people’ are two things I can control. And keeping my eyes and ears open to both makes it more likely my message will stick.

See you next time.

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