Using Concrete and Specific Examples

Posted by  Kevin Bishop —March 9, 2011
Filed in Business storytelling, Communication, Strategy

One of the basic requirements for any form of successful communication is the listener understands what’s being said. However we often face the challenge when trying to get our message understood of 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 term was first coined in 1990 by a Stanford University graduate named Elizabeth Newton. She created a simple game in which she assigned people to one of two roles: ‘tapper’ or ‘listener’. Each tapper was asked to pick a well-known song, such as “Happy Birthday,” and tap out the rhythm on a table. The listener’s job was to simply guess the song.

120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed only three of the songs correctly: a success ratio of 2.5%. But before they guessed, Newton asked the tappers to predict the probability that listeners would guess correctly. They predicted 50%. The tappers got their message across one time in 40, but they thought they would get it across one time in two. Why?

When a tapper taps, they are hearing the song in their head. Go ahead and try it for yourself – tap out ‘Happy Birthday’. 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 strange Morse code.

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.

So, what can you do to overcome the curse of knowledge, especially if you work in very specialised areas full of jargon, technical speak and acronyms? Use specific, concrete examples.

Specific, concrete examples (aka stories) work particularly well in overcoming the curse of knowledge, because they allow us to give examples that people create and can ‘see’ in their own minds. It takes the abstractions and the jargon and makes them real by allowing the listener to understand what you actually mean.

For example, the other day I was working with a large financial services organisation and they were showing me a clip of their CEO talking about their four focus areas for 2011. In it the CEO said; “We are not easy to do business with” and then moved on to talk about the initiatives underway to rectify this.

As I watched all I could think was; “What do you mean, please give me an example so I can understand”. Don’t you think a short story showing how difficult they are to do business with would have really helped viewers understand what they meant as well as making the video much more compelling? Imagine how much more compelling it could have been if that story was also about the human impact on customers?

The CEO knew exactly what they meant by the term “We are not easy to do business with” but I suspect across the organisation there were many people who didn’t.

In Made to Stick Dan and Chip Heath tell a story about how FedEx used a specific example to bring to life the company’s strategic aim of being “most reliable shipping company in the world.” “In New York, a FedEx delivery truck broke down and the replacement van was running late. The driver initially delivered a few packages on foot; but then, despairing of finishing her route on time, she managed to persuade a competitor’s driver to take her to her last few stops.” Stories like this are tangible demonstrations of the company’s strategy and help take abstract notions and make them real for people to understand.

So if you want to make sure you are avoiding the curse of knowledge and reducing the gap between you as the ‘tappers’ and your audience as the ‘listeners’ use concrete and specific examples. When I say “concrete and specific”, I mean focus down on a specific moment and tell a story about that. This would mean instead of saying “delays in our mortgage process” is an example of “difficult to business with”, tell a story. Maybe:

Barbara Jones, a customer since she was at school, had shifted out of her house that day. She had packed all of her furniture into a removal truck, and was now parked outside the house she thought she had just brought being told by us there was a delay in processing her mortgage approval. She was now facing the prospect of a two day delay, with no where to stay, a furniture truck full of her everything she owned and her cat in a cage on the back seat. All because of the failings of our mortgage process.

Do these two things feel somewhat different?

About  Kevin Bishop


  1. David Zinger says:

    I like the tapper analogy. Have you tried it in groups. Obviously this lacks controlled conditions but I have had about 20 to 30 per cent guess the song right. And of course frogs do jump out of water when it is heated slowly too. Sometimes stories don’t have to be “true” to be helpful.

  2. Hi David, I use this in workshops quite often. I reckon there is about a 10% guess rate. Maybe it has to do with song choice. My favourites are Happy Birthday to Me and Here Comes the Bride (chosen because it also works in Asia). But 20-30% still makes the point. And what self respecting frog would hang around in warm water?

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