Hello…? The broken telephone game and its implications for effective knowledge sharing

May 4, 2016 by Tina Žagar

Have you ever participated in the broken telephone game? It is a game where you come up with a phrase and then you whisper it into the ear of the person sitting next to you. Next, this person has to whisper what he or she heard in the next person’s ear. This continues in the circle until the last person has heard the phrase. The trick is that you have only one chance to whisper the phrase, no repeating is allowed. Whatever you hear, you pass along the best you can to the next person. When the phrase comes around to the last person in the circle, he or she says it out loud. The game finishes by comparing the original phrase to what the last person heard and said.



It is a very entertaining and enjoyable game and, at the same time, brings out several important messages for effective communication, which in my view is also the key to effective knowledge sharing.

Recently, at one of our regular internal knowledge sharing gatherings, I proposed to my colleagues to play this game. My ulterior motive was to share with them my primary take-aways from the High-Level Meeting on Country-Led Knowledge Sharing (HLM3), where more than 400 representatives from 66 countries and 11 multilateral institutions discussed future steps for developing country capacities for knowledge sharing in support of the Sustainable Development Goals.

We played two rounds of the game. In the first round the following statement “Kylie Minogue will be among the stars to perform at the Queen’s 90th birthday celebrations. The event will be hosted in May on the private grounds of Windsor Castle” was passed among the 20 of us. What came out was “The singer of our youth will have a party”. Hm… Quite a significant change of what got conveyed, wouldn’t you say? We experienced how the original idea went through various retellings, changing its meaning and form.

In the second round, when only six of us played, the message told in the end was almost identical to the original statement. This clearly shows that with the increasing number of participants in a communication process it is easy to misunderstand what others are saying and how important it is that both the speaker and listener are actively engaged.

Being a good listener along with making a conscious effort to hear what people are really saying helps open up knowledge flows and make knowledge sharing effective. This is part of an answer to the question that was raised over and over again in Washington at the HLM3.