Grouping Information So It's More Easily Understood
Think about the amount of information you have to process each day. You read reports and meeting notes, you discuss problems, you hold team briefings, and you chat by the water cooler.
Some of the information that you receive is easy to understand and retain: some of it is not. The difference is often in how the information is presented.
Imagine you are playing the memory game "what's missing." You simply have to memorize all the items that are presented to you on a tray – then work out which one has been removed. Now, 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 make sense of and retain. And there's no need to look at each item individually: you can skim the tray and grasp exactly what is being presented. This process of grouping information so that the intended audience easily understands it is known as "chunking."
Evidence that chunking works is all around us:
- Phone numbers and credit card numbers are typically chunked. Both types of number are usually chunked in groups of three or four numbers.
- When you encounter a phone number (or other familiar grouping) that is chunked differently than the way you are used to, it can be much harder to remember it.
- Rather than memorizing the letters O – T – M – E – E – R, converting them to the word "REMOTE" makes the task much easier.
When written or verbal information is chunked effectively it is logical, organized, and consistent. This enhances your audience's ability to understand what's going on. A written format that is chunked and hierarchical gives readers quick access to the big picture. From there they can get into the details as needed. And a verbal format that is well structured and logically chunked helps listeners to follow and remember key ideas or details as necessary.
Using the Chunking Principle for Effective Communication
The chunking principle hinges on three key points:
- Information is easier to understand when it's presented in small, well-organized units.
- The maximum number of information items there should be in a unit is between five and nine.
- Information is easier to understand when it's presented at the right level of detail for the audience and the information that needs to be conveyed.
Using Small, Well-Organized Units
When content is grouped into small and easily digestible units it is easier to remember and comprehend.
Think about 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 instructions or long multi-step explanations? When you read a web page, do you read every detail or do you skim for the content that you want?
The types of communication that you find most effective are usually the ones that are chunked.
Here are some guidelines to help you follow the principles of chunking when presenting information to other people:
- Keep paragraphs short – 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 nine items.
- Present information in tables or columns.
- When giving instructions, be very specific and separate each step as appropriate.
- Use pictures and other visual cues to aid understanding.
Using Units of Between Five and Nine 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 (7 +/- 2).
So, an easily memorable list for training a salesperson might be:
- Make an appointment with the prospect.
- Research the prospect's business and how they could use your product.
- When you meet the prospect, briefly validate that your knowledge of the business is correct.
- Present relevant Unique Selling Points of your product.
- Deal with any queries.
- Close the sale.
- Send the order to your order processing department.
Most of us would find it fairly easy to memorize these steps when we're sitting talking with the prospect in his or her office. If there were more steps, though, we'd likely run the risk of missing one out.
One way round this is to bundle up small items to make larger ones. For example:
- Make an appointment with the prospect.
- Check the Purchasing Manager's name in a directory or online.
- Call the purchasing Manager personally to make the appointment.
- Follow up with an e-mail to confirm.
- Find out about the prospect's business.
- Visit the business' website or brochure.
- Check its published annual accounts or elsewhere to find out its turnover, and estimate how much of your product it could use.
- Find out who its current supplier is.
- Briefly validate your knowledge of the prospect's business.
- Confirm what its main products are and what proportion of turnover these represent.
- 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. However, when they are chunked up in groups of fewer than five to nine items into the higher level points (1, 2, 3 etc), the structure makes them much easier to recall.
Here we're talking about five to nine pieces of information as being ideal. When you're talking to one individual and you can immediately assess how many pieces of information he is retaining, then this is fine.
However when you're communicating with several people, you can't easily assess how well they are retaining the information. Here, you might want to keep to as few as five individual points if you want everyone to remember what you're saying. (In fact, some speech writers recommend only putting a maximum of three major points in a speech!)
Finding the Right Level of Detail
Deciding how exactly to chunk information can be challenging. You need to strike an optimal balance of detail: it needs to be sufficiently thorough, yet not so detailed that you lose your audience's attention. This is why it's so important to consider your audience's needs too. Here are some tips:
- Remember that the 7 +/- 2 rule is a guideline for maximum recall.
- When your audience is fairly new to a subject, consider including less information in each chunk. When your audience is quite knowledgeable on the subject you can include more.
- The amount of detail you include also depends on how critical it is that the audience knows the detail.
So, if you were doing sales process training for a group of trainee salesmen, 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 working on tightening up the sales process with your existing sales force, you might include the a, b, c etc points as well.
Another way of thinking 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 through to a broader one, and then back down again, different opportunities present themselves. Chunking, in this context, enables you to work through a issues and problems by reorganizing (rechunking) the information.
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 the other person's need, depending on what she says or asks 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 break out of routine thinking to identify alternatives, then you can chunk back down to find specific solutions 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 is 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 is often because the task at hand seems too large. By chunking down, you break the job into manageable bites. If people are overwhelmed by details, do the opposite and chunk up in order to help them see what they are trying to accomplish.
Chunking is a communication technique that can help you to discuss large amounts of information, by splitting it into manageable sections. Doing this can also help your audience to retain as much relevant information as possible.
There are three key ingredients needed for successful chunking:
- Using small, well-organized units.
- Using units of between five and nine items.
- Finding the right level of detail.