The Metro Maestro: Why Brilliant Messages Often Get Missed


Are you a good communicator? Do you know how to maximize the receptivity of your message?

On January 9, 2007, world-class violinist Joshua Bell performed in front of a capacity crowd at Boston’s historic Symphony Hall, one of the finest acoustic concert venues on earth. Good seats to the event cost $100 per ticket. Three days later, Bell showed up unannounced at the L’Enfant Plaza Metro in Washington, DC. Dressed in casual attire, he performed anonymously in the entryway of the station for 45 minutes during the morning rush hour. He placed his empty violin case on the ground in front of him, as street performers often do, to welcome contributions. The recital was part of an informal experiment to see whether the quality of the music would prompt busy commuters to stop and listen.

Would the virtuoso violinist attract a crowd or go largely unnoticed? Footage from a hidden camera tells the tale. Out of 1,097 passersby, only seven paused to take in the music for more than a minute. Collectively, the metro riders donated $32 of small bills and change to Bell as they hurried past him.

Does the lack of attention given to Bell reflect negatively on his abilities? Certainly not. Rather, one lesson from the experiment is that an audience has to be primed, or readied, to receive the content that a communicator has to offer. If people are given content when they least expect it, or when their minds are distracted, they will miss out on the message.

A related lesson is that, when attempting to connect with an audience, physical context counts. Some environments are more conducive to communication than others.

Typical communicators are self-focused. They fret about how they look or how they sound. After finishing a presentation, they are likely to wonder: How did I do? Conversely, expert connectors are audience-focused. They ask themselves: What are the experiences, backgrounds, interests, and needs of the people gathered to hear me speak? What is the energy level in the room? Is the audience prepared to hear what I am about to say? They judge their personal effectiveness not by the quality of their delivery, but by the extent of the audience’s response.

The average communicator is also subject-oriented, preoccupied with what he or she is going to say. Expert connectors, on the other hand, are atmosphere-oriented. They realize that the information they wish to convey will not likely be received unless the setting is properly prepared.

Thoughts to Ponder

In your profession, who makes up your audience? That is, who are the people with whom you need to connect in order to succeed? Take a moment to consider their interests, needs, and experiences.

How can you adjust the timing of your communication with that audience, or rearrange the physical space in which you interact with them, in order to maximize their receptivity to your message?

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