Messaging, Positioning, Sales and Elevator Pitch

Why Your Expertise is Ruining your Communications

by: Jacob Stubler, Grant Gooding


Have you ever received a blank stare from someone when you are pitching or explaining your organization?

If you have been there, which we all have, it is an uncomfortable and frustrating moment that typically leaves us scratching our heads thinking to ourselves, ‘How do they not get it?’  Often, we assume we didn’t explain the process or details as well as we could have or maybe we didn’t give them enough background or context…

The reality is that our own knowledge and expertise is the reason we fail to adequately explain our business, product, or service offering.

Elizabeth Newton from Stanford University conducted a famous study in 1990 that illustrated the disconnect that happens between two people using the simplest of formats. 

The experiment was designed as follows:

  1.  Two people were selected to participate.  One person was designated the “tapper” while the other was the “listener.”
  2. The tapper chose from a list of simple and well-known songs such as Happy Birthday, Mary Had A Little Lamb, and Jingle Bells and then “tap” the song on a tabletop.
  3. Based on their song choice and their confidence to successfully “tap” the beat or words to the song, the tapper was asked to predict the probability that the listener would successfully identify the song.

The average tapper prediction for all participants was 50%, meaning, that tappers believed there was a 50% chance their listener would correctly identify the song.  The actual results of this study surprised even the pessimistic researchers.  Only 3 of the 120 listeners correctly identified the tapper’s song.  So instead of an estimated 1 in 2 success rate, the actual success rate was 1 in 40.  This means that the listeners were incorrect, 97.5% of the time.  

The melody in our head is so simple

According to the researchers, the reason for the disconnect between the tapper and the listener is that the tapper can’t help but hear the melody of the song playing in their head.  Meanwhile, the listener lacks the context of the melody and is trying to discern what sounds like just random cadences of tapping.  This disconnect and the lack of listener success is frustrating to the tapper who is awestruck that the listener couldn’t identify such a simple tune.

In retrospect, the listeners were destined to fail

Consider the difference between the listeners “getting it wrong” and the idea that they really shouldn’t be able to land on the correct answer based on how the information was presented. This is an important distinction because the tappers greatly underestimated how much of an advantage having the song in their heads to start with added clarity to their taps in contrast to the listeners.

The constraints of the experiment were designed to isolate the disconnect in one’s perceived ability to convey information when compared to how well that information was received. Similar outcomes still occur outside of the lab every day when we converse with those around us.

What we know keeps us from communicating with others effectively

When there is a deficiency in shared context between two people, they will have to work harder to communicate effectively. There is no way around it.

This can happen when two people lack shared experiences or knowledge in a subject matter. This could manifest through different learning styles, levels of expertise, perceptions of abstract concepts, or the discussion of sensitive topics. The more factors that are at play, the more clouded communication becomes, and the harder it is to see where the disconnect exists. However, when you know it’s there, you can begin to resolve it.

You don’t need to communicate more, you need to communicate differently

Consider who you are speaking to and how their knowledge and experience might not align with yours (this is where the bias comes from). This can help to craft relatable examples to expedite your point.

Simplify the information as much as you can. If you are trying to prove that one thing is better than another, discuss one reason at a time. If possible, use visual aids such as drawings, diagrams, or a physical product to really flesh out each point before moving on to the next.

Encourage a conversation, not a monologue. Let the person you are speaking to provide feedback on your commentary so they can help you find what they need from you to better understand your position. Realize that to communicate isn’t to speak; it’s the successful transfer of information.

Successful communication has far more to do with a speaker’s delivery than a listener’s ability to comprehend information. When tapping fails, don’t tap harder. Instead, try a different approach that will provide more context, and you might just get your message to click.

Thought-provoking insights & advice—learn more from the experts at PROOF.