Communication & Alignment

The Tap Test and Why It Sticks

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In 2007, Chip & Dan Heath wrote a book titled Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. The book offers six traits that separate what we remember from what we don’t, or more accurately, what’s memorable and what’s not.  The six attributes are:

  1. Simple
  2. Unexpected
  3. Concrete
  4. Credible
  5. Emotional
  6. Story

While they are pretty self explanatory, each comes to life in one of the more memorable parts of the book where the authors explain a phenomenon called The Curse of Knowledge! (They admittedly capitalize the term to heighten the drama).

The Heath brothers describe The Curse of Knowledge as “Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it.  Our knowledge has ‘cursed’ us.  And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily recreate our listeners state of mind.”

The six traits are the antidote to the curse, and the following excerpt from the book, which uses all six traits, assures that I’ll never forget the concept of The Curse of Knowledge:

“In 1990, Elizabeth Newton earned a Ph.D. in psychology at Stanford by studying a simple game where she assigned people to one of two roles: “tappers” or “listeners.” Tappers received a list of 25 well-known songs, such as “Happy Birthday to You” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Each tapper was asked to pick a song and tap out the rhythm to a listener (by knocking on a table). The listener’s job was to guess the song, based on the rhythm being tapped. (By the way, this experiment is fun to try at home if there is a good “listener” candidate nearby.)

“The listener’s job in this game is quite difficult. Over the course of Newton’s experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed only 2.5% of the songs—3 songs out of 120.  But here’s what made the result worthy of a dissertation in psychology. 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 that the odds were 50%.

“The tappers got their message across 1 time in 40, but they thought they were getting their message across 1 time in 2. Why?

“When a tapper taps, she is hearing the song in her head. Go ahead and try it for yourself—tap out “The Star Spangled Banner.” It is impossible to avoid hearing the tune playing along in your head. Meanwhile, the listeners can’t hear that tune—all they can hear are a bunch of disconnected taps like a kind of bizarre Morse Code.

“In the experiment, tappers are flabbergasted at how hard the listeners seem to be working to pick up the tune. Isn’t the song obvious? The tappers’ expressions, when a listener guesses “Happy Birthday to You” for “The Star-Spangled Banner,” are priceless. How could you be so stupid?


“It’s hard to be a tapper. The problem is that tappers have been given knowledge (the song title) that makes it impossible for them to imagine what it is like to lack that knowledge. When they are tapping, they can’t imagine what it is like for the listeners to hear isolated taps rather than a song. This is the Curse of Knowledge. “

I’ve been coaching presentation teams for years, imploring them to consider audience takeaways versus key messages – helping them to think in terms of the receiver rather than the sender.   It’s hard to imagine a more powerful illustration to drive the point home.  It’s the kind of simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional story I’ll never forget.  How about that?!


Category: Communication & Alignment

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About the Author: Leo Bottary

Leo J. Bottary is an adjunct professor for two of Seton Hall University's graduate level programs in strategic communication and leadership.  Leo has enjoyed a 25-year career counseling leaders in the areas of strategic comm…

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  1. Leo,

    This is probably one of my favorite books. A significant portion of our Speaker Program and content is built around the ideas in this book. For example, we know a member will never remember I suggested using 3 core best practices to find top talent. However, even for individuals with dramatically different learning styles –  they still remember “sticky phrases” such as:

    “Most companies tend to attract the bottom third of the candidate pool”
    “You take whomever shows up at your doorstep and consider that the entire candidate pool”
    “A key element of hiring success is fishing in the deep end vs. shallow end of the pond”

    When I return to Vistage and TEC groups that I presented to 5-10 years ago, the members remember those sticky phrases and associate them with me, our program, and the improvements they’ve made over the years in their hiring process.

    Anyone who provides content and knowledge in their selling/marketing process – sales teams, consultants, trusted advisers, and speakers, could benefit from reading this great book.

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