Communication: Lessons from the violinist

This is a note about the importance of audience, credibility and timing for effective communication.

January 12 2007, 7:51am, legendary American violinist Joshua Bell positioned himself against a wall in a metro-station in Washington and played six classical compositions but was barely noticed by anyone. The musician went there incognito and hardly received any attention despite playing the Bach’s ‘Chaconne’ one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, on a violin worth $3.5 million. Usually Mr. Bell’s performances sell at $100 a ticket but his performance that day could fetch him only $32 in total from a total of 1097 passengers. All in all the effect of Joshua Bell in the subway was negligible. 

Bell returned to the subway in 2014. This time the public was informed about Bell’s performance and the result was a packed house. We can draw few important lessons on effective communication from the above episode.

The Audience: Are people taking a metro similar to those who buy theatre tickets? What if the metro users don’t have an ear for classical music but rather prefer typical street music? They might have paid more attention to a street musician than a legendary violinist. Tuning in to your target audience’s needs and interests is crucial. Talking about healthcare practices that help people in their 50’s might not impress an audience of school children. Customizing the message will engage the audience by increasing the effectiveness of the speaker.

Timing: People making way to their offices are pressed for time. Would they risk their jobs for listening to Mr. Bell or whoever? On a busy January morning, audience aren’t hungry for music. Many receive messages from food outlets just about the lunch hours and these drive the customers to respond. If the communication is intended to make the receiver act, timing is crucial. When people are more worried about job security, chanting about reducing plastic usage will be of no good effect or when people are concerned about existing state of affairs, trying to motivate them by repeating a distant vision sounds utopic. Understanding what is important to the audience is of prime importance.

Credibility: Persuading the audience to listen requires establishing the credibility both of the communicator and the information. 

Credibility of communicator: The credibility of Bell as an exceptional violinist persuaded people to flock in the subway in 2014. Credibility is nobility that is accumulated over time. The factors like competence and character will help establishing a trust in the audience that the communicator is worthy of listening to.  

Credibility of the information: The perception that a street musician would play some ordinary music to make some money will not capture the attention as good as ‘Chaconne’ does. Backing thoughts with data or information from credible sources will add more value to the thoughts. Valuable information more often than not attracts the audience.

Not paying heed to the tactics of persuading by leveraging credibility, timing and audience will more likely result in sub-standard outcomes. Effective communication recommends: credibility of person over his/her position of authority, value of the information and variety in presentation over just information, timing of the message over the message itself, and understanding the audience over the ego of communicator. 

All the opinions expressed in this articles are of the author and do not reflect the opinions or views of Dr. Reddy’s Foundation or its members.


Abhishek Reddy M | Deputy Manager – Communications

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