Today I’m going to hear Dan Heath talk about his new book, Switch, which is about how to create changes in people’s behavior. I count myself an adamant fan of their first book Made to Stick, so I’m looking forward to the talk. Made to Stick is of the only actionable books on communications I’ve read, and I recommend it to anyone who wants to communicate, sell, interview, connect, or tell stories more effectively (yes this means you!).
Often when I’m asked to do a “how to fundraise” presentation to a small group I’ll start with the “tappers and listeners” experiment that Chip and Dan cite early on in Made to Stick. The finding was published in the Journal of Political Economy by Dr. Elizabeth Newton, and the experiment goes like this:
Have everyone in your group pair up. For each pair, elect one person as the “tapper” and one person as the “listener.” The goal is to have the “listener” guess the song that the “tapper” is tapping. All the tapper can do is tap her finger on the table in sync with the notes of the song she wants the listener to guess. So, if the song is “Happy Birthday,” the tapper would tap: “tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-taaaaaaaaaaaap.” (tap out “Happy Birthday” and you’ll see what I mean.) Have each person be the tapper once and the listener once
Before everyone gets started, ask them to estimate how often the listener will guess the song correctly. (You should do this too, right now. Just write it down or remember your guess. Will the listener guess right all the time? Half the time? A quarter of the time?)
Now run the experiment and see what happens.
I did this yesterday with a group and it played out like it does every time. People laugh out loud – it’s a combination of excitement, joy, frustration and embarrassment. And they do a terrible job guessing the songs and a terrible job guessing how good they will be at guessing the songs.
Yesterday, my group’s median guess for how often the tappers would get the song right was 25%. In Dr. Newton’s experiment, which was much bigger, people estimated 50%. And in fact, people in the experiment guessed right 1 in 40 times (2.5%). In my group yesterday the group guessed right 8% of the time.
Put another way, people estimate that “listeners” are engaged in a coin toss (1 in 2), when really it’s a shot in the dark (1 in 40).
What’s going on here?
Dr. Newton’s article is titled “The Curse of Knowledge in Economic Settings: An Experimental Analysis.” The Curse of Knowledge in this case is the song that the “tapper” has playing in her head. As she’s tapping, she literally hears each and every note, and she just cannot imagine what it feels like to be a listener who doesn’t have that tune, who just hears “tap-tap-tap-tap” and thinks “well that could be ANYTHING!!” The tapper and listener can’t help but get a little bit frustrated at each other. The tapper thinks “well c’mon, this shouldn’t be so hard,” because she hears the notes accompanying the taps; and the listener wants to please the tapper and wants to get it right but just isn’t getting enough information.
I love having people do this together because it is simple, fun and visceral. You can tell people a million times to explain things simply, to use narrative, to tell stories, to avoid jargon…and you won’t get half the effect you have after they’ve played this 5- minute game.
It’s easy to remember what it feels like to be both a tapper and a listener and from there you can begin to understand how your own knowledge, expertise and experience are hampering your ability to explain yourself, your story, what your organization does, the change you hope to see in the world.
The next time you’re telling your story and you see a blank, smiling face across the table, take a moment to think: what does this sound like without the accompanying music?