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The tappers and the listeners

Fingers tappingAbout a year ago, we developed a new tagline for our law firm: “Redefining what a law firm should be.” The tagline was meant to capture our refusal to do what constitutes business as usual in most law firms. In my mind, the line encapsulated something that could resonate with our target market and serve inside our walls as both a reminder of what we set out to do and a challenge to do it.

Shortly after we adopted “Redefining what a law firm should be,” my Vistage group brought in a branding expert who offered an on-the-spot assessment of each company’s branding. I was very pleased with ours — in love with it, actually — and presented our tagline with very real enthusiasm (even if muted for public consumption).

The expert was unimpressed. So was I — with him.

What I didn’t know then was that I had just run up against the phenomenon that I have come to think about as “the tappers and the listeners,” something I learned about in the phenomenal book “Made to Stick,” by Chiph and Dan Heath.

In 1990, write the Heath brothers, a Stanford psychology doctoral candidate named Elizabeth Newton conducted a simple experiment – one which you’ve probably reproduced unknowingly at your kitchen table at one time or another. She gathered students, divided them into two groups and assigned each group to be either tappers or listeners.

The tappers received a list of well-known songs, such as “the Star-Spangled Banner” or “Happy Birthday to You.” After pairing off with a listener, each tapper was asked to pick a song and tap out the rhythm by tapping on a table. The listener was asked to guess the song.

In Newton’s experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Now, you may think that the point of the experiment was to determine, possibly even to shock you by revealing, how often the listeners guessed right. But that’s not the point at all. (Take a moment to guess a percentage before continuing.)

The listeners correctly guessed 3 songs out of 120, or 2.5 percent. The tappers, however, thought they got their point across at least 50 percent of the time. (Admit it. Your number was closer to 50 percent too, wasn’t it?)

If the point of Dr. Newton’s experiment was simply to highlight this gap, I’d venture to say that she would still be a doctoral candidate. Instead, the focus of her study was on why – why did that happen and why do we care?

When a tapper taps, she is hearing the song in her head. As the brothers Heath wrote, it is impossible not to hear it. That’s why tappers are so stunned that the listeners can’t hear it. The song has become obvious to them. “How,” wonders the tapper when a listener fails to guess ‘Happy Birthday to You,’ “could you be so stupid?”

The great divide between the tappers and the listeners is knowledge. The tappers have been given knowledge that the listeners simply don’t have. The tappers can’t unlearn it and they assume everyone has it. The result is not only a failure to communicate but an absolute lack of comprehension between the two groups as to the reasons for that failure.

The experiment of the tappers and the listeners is played out every second of every day in boardrooms and in classrooms, between teachers and students, managers and employees, companies and customers and between parents and children.

“How can you not know what I know?”

And that’s the point. Crafting the right message, drafting a solid contract, coming up with the perfect tagline and delivering a presentation that sticks each depends upon our ability to communicate not with tappers, but with listeners.

I may have to rethink our tagline.