“The Listener Completes the Song” (AKA “Paul Simon Explains Intention vs. Impact”)

Last month I listened to Howard Stern interview Paul Simon.

At one point Howard said to Paul,

“This song is about your father, right?”

“No,” Paul responded.

After some back and forth (Stern was disbelieving) Paul Simon said,

“For me, the listener completes the song,”

Simon’s point was that although he writes his lyrics, he has no idea how they will be interpreted by his listeners.

I have rarely heard a clearer explanation of intention vs. impact.

In this instance, my guess is that—because Howard Stern recently lost his father—he heard a song written by a son about his father, even though this wasn’t Simon’s intention.

Let’s take this into day-to-day life:

Suppose I say to one of my clients,

“There’s no need for you to include X information in your presentation, your audience isn’t invested in that story.”

If that story is emotionally charged for my client, my comment will land as thoughtless at best, cold hearted at worst; because what the client ‘heard’ me say was that what was meaningful to them was uninteresting to everyone else.

And now the trust between us has been broken.

Sound familiar?

If it does, the next time things go sideways between you and a client/friend/loved one, check if there is a discrepancy between what you said and what they heard.

It might be why things between you are out of tune.


For more on the distinction between intention vs. impact look at “Tools for Potentially Head-Exploding Conversations”