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025 – How to tap into your audience

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —July 5, 2018
Filed in Anecdotes, Business storytelling, Podcast

Tags: Curse of knowledge, bigger picture, insight

When people don’t understand what we’re trying to convey to them we get frustrated. Sometimes we wonder why they aren’t getting something so simple. This is called the curse of knowledge.

This week’s story is my favourite type – a scientific experiment story. It’s about Elizabeth Newton, a Stanford University graduate who conducts an experiment to demonstrate that something really clear in our own minds is harder than we think to get across to another person. It’s extremely hard to remember what it’s like to not know something.

In business, we’re asked to convey strategies, new procedures and decisions to others. This task is incredibly important and often done with variable success. The leader has the bigger picture in mind, and it’s highly valuable to pass that bigger picture on. Without it, it’s hard for others to understand why your message is important. We use this story in our workshops and find it highly valuable because it delivers insight instantly.

Tap into your audience

For your storybank

Elizabeth Newton studying Graduate Degree at Stanford University in 1990. Set up a simple experiment.

Divided them up into two different groups – tappers and listeners.

Tappers were asked to tap out a simple song that everyone would know and listeners had to guess the song.

She asked tappers to guess how many people would get the song right. They expected about half to get it right.

When they tapped it out it was only 2.5% that got it right.

Listeners are only hearing tappity tap, tappers are hearing the whole song.

Her point is when we have any type of information and we’re conveying it to a group, the tapper always knows more than what the listener does and has the bigger picture.

Podcast Transcript

Shawn:

Welcome to Anecdotally Speaking- a podcast to help you build your business story repertoire. Hi, I’m Shawn Callahan.

Mark:

And I’m Mark Schenk. And, Shawn, I’m off to Spain pretty soon, September, running a public workshop and speaking at a conference there.

Shawn:

You will love that.

Mark:

And I’m looking forward to it. I’ve never been before, so it will be my first time. I’ve got one day off to look around Madrid. I know you’re been to Spain and you speak a bit of Spanish, I have none of that. What would you recommend that I do, one day?

Shawn:

I haven’t been to Madrid but I do have an interest in that at the moment. Our partners in Mexico have challenged me to learn a little bit of Spanish so as a result you start to get your head in that game and looking around places which speak Spanish.

Sheena and I actually did the Camino Trail in the North of Spain, about 120 km of it, but in Madrid one of the things that has popped up on my radar is, I was listening to Melvyn Bragg’s ‘In our time’ podcast and they were talking about Picasso’s ‘Guernica Painting’ which is a painting representing one of the big bombings that happened in WW2 in the town of Guernica. It’s one of the most amazing paintings according to the guys who were talking about it and it sits in the Reina Sofia Museum. Maybe if you check that out I think it could be kind of interesting.

Mark:

Oh, okay fantastic, I will definitely do that. Just last Sunday I went down to the National Gallery of Victoria where they’ve got an exhibition from MoMA in New York and they’ve got some amazing art from MoMA. One of them was another of Picasso’s works and it was fantastic. They had Dali, Picasso, all through modern art it was really good so okay, Reina Sofia.

Shawn:

Check that out. So apart from that maybe we can throw it out to our listeners.

Mark:

Good idea.

Shawn:

So, if you have any good ideas for Mark please jot them down or pop them into the comments field for our podcast and that’ll set him in the right direction to see what he should see.

Mark:

Make the most of my day.

Shawn:

Now today’s story is one we actually use to tell a lot in our workshops. We don’t tell it so much these days but it’s a very effective story.

Mark:

It’s one of Shawn’s favourite types of stories.

Shawn:

Yes, it can be a story about a scientific experiment; you get the benefits of a sighted peer review journal as well as someone making a good business point.

So, this story is about a woman who was studying in Stanford University, a lady called Elizabeth Newton. In 1990 she was doing her graduate degree and set up a very simple experiment.

The experiment was just to get a group of people, divide them into what she called tappers and listeners. The tappers would be asked to tap out a song, so a simple song that everyone knows and the listeners had to guess what the song was–as simple as that. And I thought, Mark, we might try it out. I’ll tap out a couple of songs or at least one song and see if you can guess it.

Mark:

I’m going to seriously try and guess them or for the sake of the viewers I’m going to get it wrong.

Shawn:

No, no, no, I want to see if you can get this right. I’m not too sure if I use the same songs you do, so here’s my song. (tapping pen on table)

Mark:

I’ve got nothing.

Shawn:

You’ve got nothing? Really! Come on it’s a classic Australian Song; ‘Click go the shears’. That was ‘Click go the shears and I rendered it in all the magical detail that you do when you render a song by tapping a pen on a table.

Mark:

So, can I just say that now that you’ve said ‘Click go the shears’, I’ve got it but I had no idea before you said it.

Shawn:

Okay, that’s good. This actually helps illustrate the point. So, when she was tapping out these songs she would ask the tapper, first guess how many would actually get the song right and generally speaking the tappers would say about half they’d expect to get it right.

When they tapped it out, just like Mark’s experience there, something like 2.5 % of people actually got it right. Of course, when you are tapping out a song all you are hearing is tap tappity tap tap, whereas the person who’s tapping out the song hears the entire song.

Mark:

So, the listener is just getting the taps.

Shawn:

Yes, the listener is just getting the taps whereas the tapper has the full song in their head. They hear the melody; they hear the orchestration, they have the full sound coming through them.

That is the point that she is making in her research, that when we have any sort of information and we are conveying it to a group, the tapper always knows more than what the listeners do, always has the bigger picture.

Especially for leaders this is a big problem because they’ll get together and they’ll have conversations and they’ll work out the values of the organisation or the strategy or whatever it might be and then they head out to the organisation and what do they do; they start to tap out this tune and off course the listeners are going…

Mark:

So, the listeners in this case being the staff.

Shawn:

The staff have no idea what they are talking about. They don’t have that benefit of being part of that conversation and the rich depth that they go to, to really make sense of the story, and all the information they are conveying.

Mark:

So, correct me if I’m wrong, did Elizabeth Newton’s research lead to the coining of the phrase ‘the curse of knowledge’?

Shawn:

Yeah I think she used that didn’t she. She used that idea, that concept of the curse of knowledge, we are all cursed in the way in which we convey what we know because we know much more than we can say and we can say more than we can write down.

Dave Snowden actually used to say that, I’m sure he still does. So that’s really this idea that you’re losing something at every interaction that you are having.

Mark:

So, do I get to tap out a song to see if you can guess it right.

Shawn:

Yeah, yeah go for it. I’ve got a great musical ability.

Mark:

So, this is one that you’ll know, probably one of your favourites. (taps song out)

Shawn:

So, I’m thinking was it a madness song, was it a devo song, and I think it might be ‘Wippet’.

Mark:

Excellent guess, completely wrong, but a good guess and I know you love that techno music stuff.

Shawn:

What was it?

Mark:

‘Planet Clear’ is one of my favourite Devo songs by the way. The song was ‘here I go again, my, my, how can I resist you’

Shawn:

Abba, oh my god. Right.

Mark:

And you didn’t get that, but of course in my head I’m seeing the stage, Bjorn and Benny with their guitars and Anni and Agnetha in their white jump suits back to back looking in different directions. I can hear the music and I’ve got the lyrics and all you are getting is tap tap tap. Not much at all.

Shawn:

So okay, that’s the story, a bit of an extended disco version of it and I guess the question we like to ask now is why does it work, why is it useful? What do you think Mark, what are some of the things you like about this story?

Mark:

I like that it’s experiential. When I use this story in workshops I get people in groups to tap out songs and see if people in the table groups can get it right. And I ask the question at the end of it which is; for those who did not have their songs identified correctly how did you feel? And a lot of them say ‘well I was actually really surprised– like I’m thinking what’s wrong with these people?’

Shawn:

Oh, I see, Right.

Mark:

‘Why haven’t they got this?’

Shawn:

It’s so simple.

Mark:

It’s so simple, it’s so clear. I’m tapping so beautifully and the other experience that they have is they have a sense of frustration. ‘Why don’t you understand me? What is wrong?’ That’s one of the things I love about this story is that people have this experience when they are communicating at work.

Shawn:

Yes. The analogy is so clear for them. That’s the lovely thing about it. I think the other thing too is, that it’s a simple story. There’s not that much except of course you’ve got to get the tapper and listener elements correct. Lucky you were here and knew the story and could help me out with that. As an idea it’s not a complex story, but it has a little bit of surprise, it has something unanticipated so that’s what makes it interesting if you like.

Mark:

It’s got a nice bit of contrast. The contrast between what the tappers expected to happen which was 50% of the people would guess it right and the proportion of people who guessed it correctly which was 2.5 % so that contrast works really well.

Shawn:

Indeed. I think also just the fact that she did her studies at Stanford that always helps, that institutional credibility you get when you are talking about a large well known University, that just adds to the story. What could we do to make that story better?

Mark:

I think when using that story, it’s important that you choose a song that’s appropriate for your audience.

Shawn:

Yeah, not many people will get ‘Click goes the shears’.

Mark:

No and many of our international listeners will be going, ‘what is that song?’

Shawn:

I normally do ‘Happy birthday to me’ right and there’s probably some royalties in there to be paid as a result of that, I have to be quiet about that.

Mark:

Keep that to yourself.

Shawn:

But the great thing about that is, that even then people don’t get it.

Mark:

If you use a song like Mama Mia with a group of millennials then you weaken the effect of the experiment because they’re going ‘I don’t even know that song’.

Shawn:

Right.

Mark:

So, it just needs to be relevant to the audience because you don’t want the audience, essentially dismissing the story because you chose a song that they say, that’s not relevant, I would never have guessed that.

Shawn:

Exactly, you’ve got to pick well-known songs. The other one I like to pick is ‘Here comes the bride’. I find that cuts across cultural barriers, that seems to be one a lot of people know.

Mark:

And just on Happy Birthday, so many times people do happy birthday, baa baa black sheep, etc, very very simple songs and sometimes people get it because sometimes simple messages get through but most of the time even those simple messages are not picked up, and there’s huge lessons for leaders.

Shawn:

I suppose that brings us nicely to just where would you use this? What do you think would work well in an organisational setting, Mark?

Mark:

Using that story to remind people at every opportunity that when you’re communicating the curse of knowledge is probably at play. This is, once you know something it’s almost impossible to imagine what it’s like to not know it, and so when you communicate assuming people know stuff; you might, in fact, you are likely to be ineffective in your communication.

Shawn:

Yeah.

Mark:

So just that reminder.

Shawn:

Isn’t it amazing how many people we talk to and we’ll say something like ‘we really have to get this message across’. And the leaders turn to us and say, ‘you know what Shawn, they already know it, they already know it’ and we just shake our heads, don’t we?

Mark:

Yep, so many times and we go ‘I don’t have to say that, everyone knows it’ and then you go and test and they have got no idea. I had an experience a little while ago, in fact the middle of last year, 2017. Working with a room full of leaders, there were 16 leaders in the room.

There was the CEO, or CEO equivalent and direct reports and they had some challenges in that organisation and one of them was around sexual harassment and bullying. So, there were some bad behaviours and one of the leaders stopped the group and said ‘everyone I just want to say a few words. This is an issue that everyone needs to understand’ and he started talking.

I let him talk for about 5 minutes and after 5 minutes I interrupted him and asked if I could test what was happening in the room. Now he wasn’t too happy and said to me ‘I’m not finished yet, Mark’. We had a little conversation but he went along with the experiment; testing what was happening in the room.

So, I started by pointing out to everybody that we’ll call him Paul, right, so Paul started out by saying everyone needs to understand this, he’s spoken for 5 minutes, he’s spoken really eloquently, he’s obviously very passionate about this, wants to make a difference, so let’s just do a test, does everyone understand what Paul’s just said.
Everyone in the room, all 15 leaders said yes and nodding their heads, yes, got it.

But in the Air force, so I spent 20 years in the Air Force and when you’re constructing
an air field in the middle of the Australian bush, you don’t leave things to chance. We
have a saying which is ‘press to test’ so you always test and make sure it works.

So, I turned to the lady who was sitting right next to me and said, ‘so what did Paul just say’ and with a very strained expression on her face she said ‘um, sexual harassment is bad!’ and I turned to a guy who was on my left and said, ‘so what did he just say’ and he looked at me and said, ‘I’ve got nothing’.

I went to half a dozen more people around the room, ‘what did Paul just say?’ No one could tell me. The best we got was that sexual harassment is bad. So, Paul has just spent five minutes talking passionately and eloquently and no one understood him. So Oouch.

Shawn:

Yeah that hurts doesn’t it?

Mark:

So, there was Paul transmitting information, tapping out and people just were not getting the message. They couldn’t pick up the story.

Shawn:

Well that’s the thing, I bet you anything you did that because he wasn’t telling the story.

Mark:

Of course, I did because I was listening to him going ‘man’. What I do is, I listen to people and most of the time when we are talking high level ambiguous, I’m thinking ‘please stop talking now’ and I’m pretty sure the rest of the audience were doing exactly the same. They are simply waiting for him to stop, so as soon as I have that experience, that’s when I intervene.

Shawn:

Well you’re in a session where you are teaching them storytelling techniques right and so here was a guy that was not using the technique and you wanted to make the point that what he was doing doesn’t work, which was done nicely.

Where else would you use this? I guess the reinforcement of that idea for leaders is that getting your message across is fraught with that problem, the curse of knowledge but I think it’s also about the number of times you have to tell people too. It’s not just the one-hit wonder. You really have to convey a message multiple times before it really sinks in. Yeah I think it’s a nice simple story to be able to have in your back pocket.

Mark:

It helps illustrate also the difference between the communicator, the transmitter, and the receiver where a lot of the times the communicator is thinking about the messaging from their perspective where, of course, you should always be thinking about communication from the listener’s perspective. So what information are they receiving, what information are they understanding, what are they taking in and remembering? And it helps as a reminder of that.

Shawn:

Absolutely. Great, well let’s move to some ratings Mark. Before we do the ratings I just want to mention one of our frequent contributors, John Grove, wrote the other day on one of our podcast episodes, he said ‘guys you only gave this an eight, I would have given it a ten, this is a great story.’ And it was, it was a fantastic story.

Mark:

Which one was it?

Shawn:

It was the story that was told about the roubles, you know the problems they were having in Russia, and it was true it was a ten out ten in that context. But of course, what we are trying to do here is provide stories that people can tell outside the original context into their own business area right. And so, our scores are reflecting just how useful this story would be, in our opinion anyway, back out in your own organisation.

Mark:

Look when I think about my ratings, I’m thinking about impact, usability.

Shawn:

Exactly the two main things. So, what do you reckon, this story, tappers and listeners?

Mark:

I use this story a lot and it works really well so for me it’s a nine.

Shawn:

It’s a nine, wow.

Mark:

That’s my first nine.

Shawn:

It is your first nine; you crept up to eight and a half last time but a nine, that’s great. I’d give it a nine too. This to me is simple, it’s one of the types of stories I love, a scientific experiment, you get lots of credibility doing that and just the interactive nature is fantastic. You really see people, their eyes light up and they go ‘oh my god, I had no idea’ so that’s great.

Mark:

So, two nines, this folks is definitely one to take note of and put into your story bank.

Shawn:

Well Mark I think that’s a good place for us to wrap things up so let me just finish up by thanking everyone for coming along and listening to Anecdotally Speaking and of course we want you to tune in next week for another great episode on how we’ll just put stories to work. So, rate us on iTunes, help people find this podcast and we’ll look forward to chatting to you next week. Bye for now.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

3 Responses to “025 – How to tap into your audience”

  1. Shawne McKenna Says:

    Gents! Very nice. This type of management perjorative is rife in the public sector. Management talk down to the floor staff with big words and slogans when all the staff hear are tap tap tap and can I go back to work.

    I spent my corporate and public career trying to talk in the lowest base terms (by lowest I don’t mean to suggest intelligence) to ensure the employees were engaged. Part of this tactic was to generally include a supervisor or floor manager to assist with the composition, language and delivery of the message because they would be the reinforcers of the message on the floor because managers tend to tick the communication box and head upstairs.

    Now to the real issue of the podcast…music!

    As a fellow afficionado of early 80s new wave and punk, fresh from attending the Dead Kennedys concert in Greece last week, I was interested in Mr Schenk’s Devo reference to his favourite song, Planet Claire.
    Ahhh, Mr Schenk! Planet Claire is a B52s epic from their first album including Rock Lobster Devo sung Planet Earth on the classic Freedom of Choice album which also contains Whip It.

    And please Mark, try not to sing ☺️

    Cheers

    SM

  2. John Groarke Says:

    Thanks for the credit.

    My 10 for the roubles story is based upon the criteria that Mark uses … impact, usability!

    And when in Spain, Mark, visit Santiago Bernabéu Stadium … the home of Real Madrid … especially if you have any football (aka soccer) fans in your extended family!

  3. John Groarke Says:

    Thanks for the mention … though “Grove” should be “Groarke”.

    My 10 for the roubles story is based upon Mark’s criteria … impact and usability.

    And when in Madrid, Mark, visit Santiago Bernabéu Stadium, the home of Real Madrid … any football (aka soccer) fans in your extended family will love to hear your story!!

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