Effective communications depend on two factors; a clear message and an optimal channel to deliver it. In the last 10 years or so, huge improvements have been made at the delivery end of the communications spectrum: cell phones/PDAs, text messaging, high-speed Internet, wireless, instant messaging, GPS, and the list goes on. The message clarity side of the equation, however, has not kept pace.

Whether you’re giving instructions to your employees, pitching 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 consultant, I frequently come across ad campaigns that are meant to get people to take action, but are so bland they are completely ignored. Regardless of how well you think you understand the value of what you offer or what your customers want, sending a clear and direct 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: “players” or “listeners.” Tappers was given a list of twenty-five well-known songs, including “Happy Birthday to You” and “The Star Spangled Banner.” Each tapper was asked to choose a song and set the beat for a listener (by tapping on a table). The listener’s job was to guess the song, according to the rhythm that was marked.

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

This is what made the result worthy of a psychology dissertation. 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 the odds to be 50 percent. Tappers received your message 1 time in 40, but thought they were receiving your message 1 time in 2. Why?

When a tapper plays, they are listening to the song in their head. Go ahead and try it for yourself: tap on “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It is impossible to avoid hearing the melody in your head. Meanwhile, listeners can’t hear that melody, all they can hear is a bunch of disconnected beats, like some kind of weird Morse code.

In the experiment, the tappers were stunned by how hard the listeners seem to be working to catch the melody. Isn’t the song obvious? The rappers’ expressions, when a listener guesses “Happy Birthday to you” by “The Star-Spangled Banner,” are priceless: How can you be so stupid?

It’s hard being a tapper. The problem is that the tappers have been given knowledge (the title of the song) 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 listeners to hear isolated tapping instead of a song. This is the curse of knowledge. Once we know something, it is hard for us to imagine what it would be like not to know it. Our knowledge has “cursed” us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we cannot easily recreate the mood of our listeners.

In my Orange County Business Coaching business, part of the process is revealing the message being received from the point of view of the consumer or client. Too often, a business owner’s inside knowledge of their business prevents them from fully understanding that their marketing message needs to change.

The tapper/listener experiment is recreated every day around the world. Tappers and listeners are small business owners and employees, teachers and students, politicians and voters, merchants and customers, writers and readers. All of these groups rely on continuous communication, but, like tappers and listeners, they suffer from huge information imbalances. When a business owner announces “the value of his service,” there’s a tune in his head that the customer can’t hear.

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

As a small business consultant, in my experience, most marketing programs (phone books, brochures, coupon mailing, etc.) have a return of less than 1%. This is even less than the tapper experiment in terms of communications getting the desired results. In many cases, it is not the delivery vehicle but the quality and clarity of the message it contains.

Successful small business marketing strategies depend on the owner’s ability to deliver a clear and concise message that is immediately understood by the customers they want to attract. So the next time you’re getting ready to launch that new ad campaign or update that website, ask someone who knows nothing about your business to tell you what they heard. Most marketing programs are too expensive to risk not getting the message across!

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