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Chunking

Grouping Information So It's Easier to Understand

Chunking - Grouping Information So It's Easier to Understand

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Chunking can help you to organize information in a more manageable way.

Think about the amount of information that you have to process each day. You read reports and emails, discuss problems, hold team briefings, and watch webinars.

Some of the information that you receive is easy to understand and remember; some of it is not. The difference is often in how the information is presented.

As an example, imagine that you're playing the memory game, "What's Missing?" You have to memorize all the items that are presented to you on a tray – and then work out which one has been removed.

First, imagine that the tray is presented with all the items in a jumble. Can you figure out what's missing? Next, imagine what it's like if the items are organized according to size, color or shape. It's so much easier to spot what's missing this time!

When the items are categorized, the "information" on the tray is much easier to understand and retain. And there's no need to look at each item individually, as you can skim the tray and see exactly what's being presented. This process of grouping information to make it clearer and more memorable is known as "chunking."

Evidence that chunking works is all around us:

  • Telephone numbers and credit card numbers are typically chunked in groups of three or four digits.
  • When you encounter a phone number (or other familiar grouping) that's chunked in an unfamiliar way, it can be much harder to remember it.
  • Rather than memorizing the initials of the Great Lakes as unrelated letters, such as S – M – H – E – O (for Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario), most people find them easier to remember as a single word: HOMES!

When you need to pass on written or verbal information to others, chunking can help them to understand and remember it. A written format that is chunked and organized logically gives readers quick access to the big picture. From there, they can get into the details as needed. And a verbal format that uses chunking can be particularly effective for helping people to follow and remember key ideas.

Using the Chunking Method for Effective Communication

The chunking principle depends on three key points:

  1. Information is easier to understand when it's broken into small, well-organized units.
  2. The maximum number of information items in a unit should be seven.
  3. Information is easier to understand when the level of detail is right for the audience and appropriate for the message you want to convey.

Using Small, Well-Organized Units

When content is grouped into small and easily digestible units, it's easier to comprehend and recall.

Think about the communications that work for you. When you attend presentations that use visual aids, what works best – prose or bullet points? When you read a tutorial or manual, do you prefer simple, one-step-at-a-time instructions, or long explanations with multiple steps? When you read a web page, do you read every detail, or do you skim for the content that you need?

The types of communication that you find most effective are usually the ones that are chunked.

Here are some guidelines that will enable you to follow the principles of chunking when you're presenting information to others:

  • Keep paragraphs short, and start a new paragraph each time you want to make a new point.
  • Use titles to introduce new concepts.
  • Use lists and bullet points, but with no more than seven items in each set.
  • Present information in clearly formatted tables or columns.
  • When giving instructions, be very specific, and separate each step as appropriate.
  • Use pictures and other visual cues to show how the information has been chunked.

Using Units of Up to Seven Items

This point comes from a famous article entitled "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two," written by Harvard psychologist George Miller when he was studying short-term memory in the 1950s. He found that the maximum number of unrelated items that the human brain can memorize is generally between five and nine, making seven the ideal number for most people.

So, a memorable list for training a salesperson might be:

  1. Make an appointment with the prospect.
  2. Research the prospect's business and how they could use your product.
  3. When you meet the prospect, briefly confirm that your knowledge of the business is correct.
  4. Present the relevant Unique Selling Points of your product.
  5. Deal with any queries.
  6. Close the sale.
  7. Send the order to your order-processing department.

Most of us would find it fairly easy to memorize these seven steps. If there were more steps, though, we'd run the risk of forgetting one or more of them.

One way around this is to bundle up small items to make larger ones. For example:

  1. Make an appointment with the prospect.
    1. Check the purchasing manager's name in a directory or online.
    2. Call the purchasing manager personally to make the appointment.
    3. Follow up with an email to confirm.
  2. Find out about the prospect's business.
    1. Visit its website or read its brochure.
    2. Check its published annual accounts or elsewhere to find out its turnover, and estimate how much of your product it could use.
    3. Find out who its current supplier is.
  3. Briefly validate your knowledge of the prospect's business.
    1. Confirm what its main products are and what proportion of turnover these represent.
    2. Ask about any plans for new products.

You can see that if all of these sub points (a-c) were in a single list, it would be very easy to forget one or more of them. However, when they're chunked into groups, and each group is listed under one of the higher-level points, they become much easier to recall.

Tip:

Here we're talking about seven pieces of information being the maximum. But if you're talking to one person, and you're certain that they're able to retain more than that, then you can go beyond the "magical number seven."

However, when you're communicating with several people at once, you can't easily assess how well each of them will retain the information. In which case, it's often best to keep to five individual points, so that everyone will remember what you're saying. (In fact, some speech writers recommend using a maximum of three major points in a speech.)

Finding the Right Level of Detail

Deciding exactly how to chunk information can be a challenge. Your material must be detailed enough to tell people what they need to know, but not so detailed that you lose their attention.

Here are some tips for considering the needs of your audience:

  • Remember the "magical number seven" rule as a general guideline for maximum recall.
  • If your audience is fairly new to a subject, include less information in each chunk. If your audience already knows the subject well, you can include more – but still avoid giving them more than seven completely new items to process.
  • Assess the importance of each detail you want to include. If it's not critical, consider leaving it out.

So, if you were speaking to a group of sales trainees, you might include just the numbered points one to seven from the example above. You could even cut them down to just points one, four, six, and seven (which are critical), and omit points two and three (which are nice to have but not critical). But if you were tightening up the sales process with an experienced sales force, you might include the sub points (a-c) as well.

Note:

Business consultant Barbara Minto explains the importance of limiting the number of ideas you present – and structuring them carefully – in her book, "The Pyramid Principle.” And see our articles on Business Storytelling and The Ladder of Abstraction for more ways to be impactful and memorable when you're communicating.

Another way to think about finding the "right" level of detail is to borrow some terminology commonly used in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). Here, the terms "chunking up" and "chunking down" are used to describe the process of moving between levels of detail:

  • Chunking Up – moving from something specific and becoming more general.
  • Chunking Down – moving from something general and becoming more specific.

The idea is that any issue can be seen in larger or smaller chunks. When you move from a narrow perspective to a broader one, and then back down again, different opportunities present themselves. Chunking, in this context, enables you to work through issues and problems by reorganizing (rechunking) the information.

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Finding the right level of detail means moving between the levels in a structured and logical way. In a conversation, you can do this in direct response to the other person's needs, depending on what they say or ask during the conversation.

Applications of chunking to find the right level of detail include:

  • Negotiation and problem solving: chunking up to a general level to find common ground with the other person, and then chunking back down to find a solution.
  • Creative thinking: chunking up helps you to break out of routine thinking to identify alternatives. Then you can chunk back down to find specific solutions that you may not have thought about before.
  • Improving motivation: if the other person seems bored or uninspired, you can chunk up to find an area of common interest or a common goal. Once you identify the big picture, it's often easier for people to see how their efforts can influence events, and how they can contribute even more.
  • Overcoming stress: when someone is overwhelmed, it's often because the task at hand seems too large. By chunking down, you break the job into manageable pieces. If people are overwhelmed by details, do the opposite and chunk up – this can help them to see what they're trying to accomplish.

Key Points

Chunking is a communication technique that splits large amounts of information into smaller, more manageable sections. This helps your audience to understand and remember the relevant information.

Three key ingredients are needed for successful chunking:

  1. Using small, well-organized units.
  2. Using units of no more than seven items.
  3. Finding the right level of detail.

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Comments (4)
  • Over a month ago BillT wrote
    Hello CesarAndres,

    Great to see you have found the article useful.

    As an EAL instructor, we understand how chunking plays a role in language acquisition, and how the same principal applies in other areas of life. Recognising when to chunk and when to drill down for greater detail is a great learning strategy.

    Bill
    Mind Tools Team
  • Over a month ago CesarAndres wrote
    Now that I'm reading this article, I think I've realized about how and when to tell the difference between general and particular topics; I'm commenting this because I've been struggling with the habit of "chunking down" on everything. I will take a deeper look at this article again since it caught all my attention.
  • Over a month ago Jara wrote
    Hi all, just popping in to say that this, and the rhetorical triangle article are awesome. I've learned so much about communicating effectively.

    I can't wait to blow the socks off my boss with my next report. I'll keep you posted.

    Jara
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