Are you chunking your content?

chunking your content marketing

How to chunk your content

In response to a question from one of my readers, here is an overview of the chunking principle and how to apply it to your content marketing.

What is chunking?  That depends on whether you ask a writer or a psychologist or an adult training specialist.  It depends on whether you’re talking about a context of memory or information processing or motor learning or e-learning.

The experts in different fields have different ways of describing the process of chunking.  Ironically the end result is pretty much the same, just described from opposite perspectives!

Chunking Was Developed in the 1950s

The concept of chunking originated in a 1950s journal article by Harvard psychologist George A. Miller.  He proposed that human beings have restricted short-term memory (also referred to as working memory) and that they can generally only pay attention to about 7 items of information at a time.

Learning specialists often use the example of phone numbers to illustrate the concept of chunking.  I’ve seen books and articles that describe how a typical 10-digit phone number is always divided or chunked into 3 sections to aid in memory:  the area code, the “exchange”, and the final 4 digits of the phone number.

Miller himself used the example of phone numbers in support of his theory, but he claimed that phone numbers were limited to 7 digits because that is the average limit for working memory.  Of course, we must remember that, in the 1950s, area codes had not yet been developed, so phone numbers did consist of only 7 digits.

Actually it would be more accurate to say 7 characters because at that time phone numbers in the United States began with a word, represented by the first 2 letters of that word, followed by 5 numeric digits.

For example, I remember memorizing my phone number from childhood as “Tilden4-6253”.  That would have been written as TI4-6253.  That means that people really had to memorize only 6 items:  a word and 5 digits.

How Does the Chunking Principle Work?

Since the 50s when Miller developed his theories, many scientists have done related research that supports, to some extent, and improves upon his proposed ideas.

Some people explain chunking as a process of breaking information down into bite-sized chunks, while others describe the chunking principle as requiring that items be classified into groups to avoid information overload.

Both ideas are legitimate; they are just looking at the problem from opposite perspectives.  Let’s use the modern 10-digit phone number as an illustration again.

If you think of a phone number as one large piece of information, then it needs to be broken down into smaller chunks that are easier for short-term memory to process.  This leads to breaking the whole phone number into 3 separate chunks:

  • 3-digit area code:    312
  • 3-digit “exchange”:  555
  • 4-digit number:    1212

Together these 3 chunks create a unique phone number for each customer who receives phone service.

From the other perspective, we could look at a phone number as a string of 10 individual digits.  Since it would be difficult to quickly memorize 10 digits (or to keep 10 numbers in  your short-term memory while you try to find a pen and paper handy to write them down!), working memory or short-term memory can be aided by grouping the individual digits into 3 groups:

  • 3-digit area code:    312
  • 3-digit “exchange”:  555
  • 4-digit number:    1212

Both Approaches Work Toward the Same End Results

Regardless of whether you define chunking as breaking down a large amount of information into small “bite-sized” chunks for easy digestion or as a lot of small bits of information that can be categorized into a few groups that can then be remembered more easily, either way you end up with some common traits and goals:

  • The restrictions of working memory mean we can only actively hold onto a limited number of “items” (numbers, words, digits, characters, etc.).
  • When presenting information to readers, listeners, or audience members, we can support their capacity to process that information by not exceeding those limits of short-term memory.
  • Chunking-related effects can also be created with the use of other formatting techniques that I will describe in the 4th section below.

Although George A. Miller originally proposed that the limit was “the magic number 7 (plus or minus 2)”, subsequent research over the years has proven the capacity of working memory to be even more limited than that.  Most experts now agree that we cannot hold more than 3 or 4 items in working memory!

How Can the Chunking Principle Be Applied?

These concepts about the limits of short-term memory are taught in a variety of disciplines.  The chunking principle is a basic tool-of-the-trade for technical writers, procedure writers, presenters and public speakers, and instructional designers – particularly e-learning designers – as they all attempt to help their “audience” more efficiently process large amounts of information.

Chunking is more applicable to written verbal content, although some of the techniques below could also be used with visual or numeric content and even for motor learning, such as learning a routine of dance steps.

You can apply the chunking principle to the content you create for marketing your business by being more aware of the limitations of your audience’s working memory and by using the following best practices:

  • Select no more than 3 or 4 main ideas to present in a typical piece of content.
  • Group related information under those 3 or 4 main ideas.  In this way, the supporting information reinforces the main points, but it is clear to the audience that they really only need to focus on remembering the 3-4 main points.
  • Clearly identify which points of information are most important for the reader/viewer.  You can do this through the use of formatting and labeling.
  • Use formatting techniques, such as bullet points, short lines, headings and subheadings, to structure the content for easy scanning.

Do you think that chunking would help you communicate your information more clearly to your clients and prospects?  Which of these techniques make it easier for you to process what you read?  Which techniques will you try applying in your content marketing? Leave a comment – I’d love to hear from you!

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