Marketing Communication – A Story of Tappers and Listeners

Effective communications depends on two factors; a clear message and an optimal channel to deliver it. Over the last 10 years or so, tremendous improvements have been made in the delivery end of the communication spectrum- cell phones/PDAs, text messaging, high speed internet, wireless, instant messenger, GPS and the list goes on. The message clarity side of the equation, however, has not advanced at the same rate.

Whether you are giving direction to your employees, presenting an idea to a client or creating new marketing copy for your website, the quality and clarity of your message is the key to getting others to do what you want them to do.

As a small business advisor, I frequently encounter advertising campaigns which are meant to get people to take action but are so nondescript, they get completely ignored! Regardless of how well you think you know the value of what you offer or what your customers want, sending a clear, straight-forward message using your print or digital media can be a serious challenge.

Consider a study conducted by Elizabeth Newton in 1990. Ms. Newton earned a Ph.D. in psychology at Stanford by studying a simple game in which she assigned people to one of two roles: “tappers” or “listeners.” Tappers received a list of twenty-five 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, based on the rhythm being tapped.

The listener’s job in this game was quite difficult. Over the course of Newton’s experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed only 2.5 percent of the songs: 3 out of 120.

Here’s what made the result worthy of a dissertation in psychology. Before the listeners guessed the name of the song, Newton asked the tappers to predict the odds that the listeners would guess correctly. They predicted that the odds were 50 percent. The tappers got their message across 1 time in 40, but they thought they were getting their message across 1 time in 2. Why?

When a tapper taps, she is hearing the song in her head. Go ahead and try it for yourself – tap out “The Star-Spangled Banner.” 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 bizarre Morse code.

In the experiment, tappers were flabbergasted at how hard the listeners seem to be working to pick up the tune. Isn’t the song obvious? The tappers’ expressions, when a listener guesses “Happy Birthday to You” for “The Star-Spangled Banner,” are priceless: How could you be so stupid?

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. This is 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.

In my Orange County Business Coaching business, part of the process is to reveal the message that’s received from the consumer or client point of view. All too often, the business owner’s inside knowledge of his/her business prevents them from fully understanding that their marketing message needs to change.

The tapper/listener experiment is reenacted every day across the world. The tappers and listeners are small business owners and employees, teachers and students, politicians and voters, marketers and customers, writers and readers. All of these groups rely on ongoing communication, but, like the tappers and listeners, they suffer from enormous information imbalances. When a business owner advertises “the value of his service,” there is a tune playing in his head that the customer can’t hear.

It’s a hard problem to avoid – a small business owner might have thirty years of daily immersion in the knowledge and delivery of their business. Reversing the process is as impossible as un-ringing a bell. How do you get the tune in your head to be understood by someone who doesn’t know what you know?

As a small business advisor, it’s been my experience that most marketing programs- phone books, flyers, coupon mailer, etc have a return below 1%. This is even less than the tapper experiment in terms of communications getting desired results. In many cases, it’s not the delivery vehicle but the quality and clarity of the message in it.

Successful small business marketing strategies depend on the owner’s ability to tap out a clear, concise message that’s immediately understandable by the customers they want to attract. So the next time you get ready to launch that new ad campaign or update that website, get someone who doesn’t know anything about your business to tell you what they heard. Most marketing programs are way too costly to be taking a chance on not getting the message delivered!

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