By Sarah Hayhurst

Have you ever tried to communicate something that made complete sense to you, but the outcome was far from the anticipated result and left you scratching your head? Why does communication between the speaker and the listener break down oftentimes?

Communicators, in both oral and written communication, need to avoid assumptions about their listeners’ and readers’ knowledge. Their audience will not automatically fill in the blanks appropriately. Speakers, writers, and editors must consider the information they are sharing from a variety of standpoints in order to best express exactly what they intend to get across.

Elizabeth Newton, a Stanford University graduate student back in 1990, did an experiment with speakers, or “tappers,” and listeners. The tappers would tap out a familiar song, such as “Happy Birthday” or “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” The listeners were supposed to guess the song.

Can you believe that out of the 120 songs tapped out, the listeners only guessed three songs accurately? That’s only 2.5 percent! But, this is how Elizabeth earned her dissertation in psychology: the optimistic tappers expected the listeners to guess correctly 50 percent of the time.

The optimistic tappers inevitably sang along with the tune in their heads as they tapped their fingers rhythmically. Try it! You will, too. Meanwhile, the listeners only heard random, monotone Morse code without the benefit of any tunes running through their heads—in other words, without any knowledge to connect with the tapping.

Elizabeth concluded her experiment by showing how, once the tappers knew something, they could not imagine not knowing it. The knowledge essentially froze the tappers into an inability to consider what it sounds like from the listeners’ point of view.

To better understand people in oral communication, ask a question that confirms your understanding (“Does that mean … ?”) or restate what the speaker says in your own words (“So, you’re saying …”). When the speaker finishes, the listener can conclude with a phrase like thanks, okay, right, or I see.

In writing, it takes a lot more effort to find the balance between being too elementary or repetitive and being sufficiently thorough and explanatory. Of course, a writer has a particular audience in mind, but he or she cannot assume uniform common knowledge of the readership.

Embrace the challenge of saying what you mean while closing the loopholes of confusion or frustration in written communication. Readers do not have the benefit of voice inflection, body language, or eye contact. Everything is left to the interpretation of word upon word and line upon line as paragraphs and chapters unfold into a fiction plot or nonfiction message.

Nonetheless, the ability to recheck written work can ease this difficulty. Spoken words are immediately out there, whereas a good author is open-minded to the suggestions of editors, who act as liaisons between the authors and the readers. Attempt to clear up the clutter and ambiguity that can result from assumed knowledge.

Owner of Sarah Hayhurst Editorial LLC, Sarah enjoys taking manuscripts from good to great. She is a gold-level member of The Christian PEN and specializes in the copy editing of nonfiction manuscripts and content. Sarah and her husband have been married for twenty-four years and currently reside in the Atlanta area with their three teenagers. Whenever time allows, Sarah unwinds by knitting, running, and playing piano.