Too much information, too little time.
You know it—this is certainly one of the biggest challenges for us as we navigate life in the early 21st century. We have access to (and are bombarded with) a virtually endless stream of info, but with hopelessly limited time to sort through it, process it, reflect upon it and apply it to our own lives. God knows we’ve been trying, though. Some years back, USAToday reformatted newspapers (remember those?) so that you could quickly scan dozens of newsbriefs right from the front page—a model that is imbedded into just about every Internet homepage today. We shifted from spending much of our days on the phone to scanning our email, then to text messaging, and now lots of us are making do with exchanging ideas in 140 characters or less on Twitter. For bloggers, a rule of thumb suggested by some experts is to keep your posts to three paragraphs or so, to ensure that your readers won’t bail out at the sight of a lengthy article (apparently I’m taking a bit of a chance here!). TED talks have driven speakers to condense their 1-hour presentations down to 18 minutes.
This is not really a new concept, however. It’s basically just another way of delivering more “bang for the buck”, only now it’s being applied to your investment of time and mental capacity. And we’re gobbling it up, despite the fact that it can be stress-inducing. Most likely it’s going to get worse; Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently said “Today, more content is created in 48 hours than from the beginning of time until 2003.” But if just reading this gets your heart beating a little faster, you should know that there is a silver lining in here: if managed properly, this need to limit the size of our information bursts may actually be better for our brains.
A few years ago I heard a Dartmouth professor named Chris Jernstedt speak about his research into how our brains work and learn. It turns out that our natural attention span is shorter than you might think: the brain has a hard time processing more than 15 minutes of content at one stretch. He introduced the concept of “chunking”, which refers to the fact that we process and remember information better when we group it into manageable units or chunks. We have a finite capacity of short-term memory that can hold information in an active, readily available state, but when that memory bank is full, it starts pushing the oldest deposits out in order to make room for new information coming in. The only way we can keep from “losing” a lot of that information is if we use it right away—that’s what transfers the information into our long-term memory so we can go get it later. We are much better at retaining new ideas and skills if given the chance to consider and try them out before our brain moves on to the next thing.
(fast forward to slide 17 to skip to the main ideas)
Problem is, a lot of the time this doesn’t happen. And it’s one reason why we tend to tune out long, boring presentations that seem to go on and on, even if they are accompanied by zippy PowerPoint slides. Now, this doesn’t mean we can’t explore a subject in depth; it just means that it will be more effective if we design an experience where the subject matter is broken up into bite-sized pieces that our brains can finish chewing on before we try to cram in another big fork-full of information. It’s fine to schedule a 1-hour presentation or breakout session, as long as you “chunk” the material into several coherent segments and periodically give participants the opportunity for personal reflection and—ideally–interaction with others.
Here’s a quick summary of strategies for helping to make sure your program “sticks” with the participants:
- Identify the most important information, concepts or skills to be delivered. Leave out the fluff—you don’t need it.
- Break the program down into a series of manageable chunks. Design 10- to 20-minute segments where you will introduce new information and then ask participants to use and apply it in some way.
- Build in time for participants to think about how they might relate the information that’s just been presented to their own business or personal lives. Relevance is what makes it stick.
- If you can swing it, conclude with an opportunity to reinforce key takeaways. Refer back to your original goals for the session and, ideally give audience members the opportunity to share their own conclusions with others.
As a bonus, most people will experience this kind of program as being more engaging, more energizing and ultimately, more valuable. So like Mom used to say, finish chewing your food before taking another bite. That’s the best way to enjoy a big meal and, apparently, consuming information works pretty much the same way.