Friday, July 20, 2012

Friday Fundamentals: The Chicken Check-in, or Organizing Content for Better Retention

Welcome to Friday Fundamentals, a series that presents insider tips for crafting good communications.  This time we're crowing about simple ways to make any message easier to remember.

Pop quiz!  Answer quickly.   How many chickens are in the barnyard in this picture?  Go ahead, count them -- I'll wait.  (Humming in background: Old MacDonald Had a Farm... )  Got your total now?  Read on to find out if you're right.  And don't worry; this is all leading somewhere.

Did you say two?  Wrong.  Here's a hint: Chicken number three is standing half in shade, half in sunlight, in the upper left quadrant of the picture.  But don't take it too hard.  You're  proving a point for me.  Keep reading.

If you found three, you're right -- sort of.  There are three chickens visible to the average viewer: two  in the foreground, and one in the background. Keep reading.

If you counted seven, you probably used the maximum magnification setting on your monitor to discover that there are four more chicken-sized silhouettes in the background, barely visible in the shadows.  But the seventh one on the far right is actually some kind of peacock.   

So the trick answer is really six -- but never mind that.  I put you through this exercise to illustrate a point.  Follow me now as I explain:
1.  The chickens represent concepts.  
2.  The barnyard is your short-term memory.  
3.  Keeping track of the chickens in the barnyard is trickier than you think.

Neurological Limits to Learning Retention

Back when I was first studying the principles of adult learning, I was told that an adult's short-term memory can retain a maximum of  seven concepts at a time.  I've since found out that that's a generalization.  Actually, depending on the individual and the situation, the maximum number of items that short term memory can process simultaneously is more likely to be five.  And like the chickens in the picture above, only a few of those items are actually in the "foreground" of short term memory at any one time.

What does this mean for communicators?  Precisely this: if there are lots of separate facts in your material, it's best to train them out in blocks of five or fewer.  This makes it easier for your audience to fit them into their memories and get comfortable with them -- an essential consideration if you want your audience to add them into their current knowledge "database" and deploy them later in practical ways.  

Also, for maximum retention it helps to present those facts in a way that sets them into clear relationship with each other and highlights their relevance.  That way, your audience can painlessly see their connection to practical usage. 

Introducing Your Chickens

Think of the barnyard analogy.  Let's say you're a chicken farmer showing off your chickens to some visitors.  You point to a chicken and introduce it by name:  "This one over here's named Trudy."  Your visitors register that chicken and input it briefly into their memory.  But as soon as you point out another chicken (Amy), then another (Wanda), the visitors start to waver in confusion.  To them, the chickens look pretty similar.  Which one is which?   

You, the farmer, may be serenely unaware of their state of mind.  That's because you're operating within your area of expertise.  Your memory is steeped in lore about your familiar and beloved chickens.  When you say each one's name, a flood of background knowledge  infuses your brain with recognition, meaning, and positive emotions.  

The visitors to your farm, however, experience none of that reassuring rush of context.  Their short-term memories soon get overheated.  By the time you introduce the seventh chicken (Bridget, who's actually a Congo peahen), your visitors have forgotten the name of Chicken #1.  (Can you remember it now without looking back a few paragraphs?)  

In fact, at this point in the story, your visitors may have detached entirely.  Having become increasingly frustrated at their inability to follow your chicken roll call, they  may be heading back to their car, without even stopping to buy eggs at your farm stand.  Are they to blame?  No -- you are. You should have  introduced your chickens in a user-friendly way by using some simple devices to organize your content for better retention

Okay, freeze.  Take a step back.  Assess your own engagement level with this story, at this moment. I hope you're following along smoothly, because so far I've already used a few of those simple devices to retain your interest and connection to my material.  And if you're still reading, that means they've worked.

Here they are:

Six Ways to Organize Your Content to Empower Learning Retention

A.  Plan for an Engaging Presentation - To have a stronger impact, enhance your delivery.  You can:
  • Employ multimedia - Add a variety of sound and/or images to plain words. 
  • Give opportunities for interaction - Invite your audience to enter into the presentation, via games, discussion, Q & A segments, etc.
B.  Organize Into Subgroups - As noted before, it's a stretch to expect people to retain more than five items at a time.  To reduce complexity:
  • Present points in sequence - Fit your content into a natural progression that will make the most sense to your audience. 
  • Highlight  categories or common themes - Package and pace your material so that your audience can receive it smoothly and store it into their long-term memory in neat bundles  of comprehension.
C.   Give Illustrations - It helps to put your new information into an existing framework that's already within your audience's "comfort zone." To do this: 
  • Use a familiar analogy - A string of abstract concepts is easier to grasp when you can say "It's just like..." and relate it to something that your audience already understands.  
  • Use storytelling -  Weave your material into a narrative that personalizes it for your audience and captures their imagination. 
These are just a few of the many ways you can organize your content to increase your message's perceived value, impact, and usability.  

Think of the next communication you need to craft.   Do a "chicken check-in" before you do anything else.  

  • What are the new ideas you need to introduce?
  • How many are there?  
  • How can you group them so that your audience has no more than five new things to remember at a time?
  • How else can you organize your ideas to help your audience easily map them for future reference? 
It's no use introducing your chickens if they're going to fly the coop.  If you think you can do an indiscriminate info dump on your audience and still get awesome "egg production" (results), you're counting your chickens before they hatch.  Instead, incubate your ideas just a little more to nest them into categories and groupings that will hatch the outcomes you want to see.  

When you organize your content well,  your target audience will remember it well --  and apply your words of wisdom in ways that will make you rule the roost.  

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