Conveying Information Effectively

Here’s an interesting experiment to try. Get a friend. Think of a song (one that you would reasonably expect your friend to know as well). Tap along with your finger while you play the song to yourself in your head. Now ask your friend what song you were taping out.

It turns out that the taper’s estimate of  how easy it will be for someone to guess what song they are tapping is vastly greater than the success their friend will have in actually coming up with the correct song. The taper believes they are conveying much more information than they really are.  (Apologies for not being able to find the actual study reference I was looking for – I couldn’t find it on Google Scholar and I’ve long since thrown out the psychology textbook I had that referenced the study.)

There’s an important lesson in this experiment. Often times we’re in a position where we have an idea, thought, emotion, etc. that we are trying to get across to someone else. As humans its our nature to overestimate the ease with which other people can understand the information we are trying to convey. What we may feel is very clear – tapping our finger to a song that we think is very obvious – may in fact be completely obscured to the people we are trying to convey this information to.

Something to keep in mind thenext time you’re waiving your arms around at a meeting boisterously trying to make a point . . .

  • Blogs as Backchannel Communications

    Have you ever posted something to your blog knowing that someone in particular will read it, and intending it for just that person, even though it looks like you’re just whistling in the wind?

  • walker

    Love it! I know what you mean!

  • Seth – I’m apalled that you would throw out your psych text book, especially when textbooks contain such important information presented in an easily accessible manner!
    In all seriousness, this is a great example of the fascinating applications of psychology every day. It gets really interesting when you combine the age old psych concepts with modern day neuroscience.

  • abhi

    Hi Seth,
    Just wondering if you’ve ever had a chance to look at NLP and representational systems.
    In particular one of the core tenets of NLP is ‘the map is not the territory’ i.e. every person has a unique map of the world (worldview) and this is not the actual world.
    so effective communication has to be in your audience’s worldview/ their map/representational system.

  • Seth,
    This looks like it was made for you: