I was recently meeting with a superintendent that was going through the same thing as most districts around the nation. They had budget issues, COVID-19 related closings, students with poor internet access for online schooling, and the list goes on and on. I reviewed a video he was planning to send out and it ran about eight minutes while covering at least 12 topics. Everything was important, but nothing stood out.
Frankly, it all washed over me, and if asked what the actions items were, I couldn’t say. The superintendent fell into the trap we have all faced – if everything is important than conversely nothing is important.
I certainly believe in the need to over communicate to ensure your message “gets” out. Repeated communications, while tiresome for us, is the only way to ensure our parents and students hear our message. This does not mean, however, that long, drawn out messages with numerous points have the best impact. In fact, the opposite is true.
I fully understand why we tend to provide more points than the listener can consume. I refer to this as Speakers Amnesia. It is where we know as a listener that we want the speaker to be concise and get to the point, but once we are the speaker, we are so motivated to provide the listener with ALL the information they need. We forget that they can only consume so much information before they stop paying attention.
Brevity isn’t just a virtue; it’s a necessity. People get as many as 20,000 messages of varying sorts in a day. To make your message heard above the rest, you must be succinct. You cannot afford to have a complex, lengthy message when you’re initially trying to reach your target audience (think caregivers, board members or any group you want to hear actually hear you!). You have to grab them right out of the box.
Once you get your audience’s attention, you can deliver more complex messages to further inform, educate, and sell them on your position. But do not reverse this order or you risk providing the targets with so much information they hear nothing.
Start with a concise message that has the simplest points and expand as the targets request information or indicate a willingness to learn more. Until your audience makes some sort of outward request to learn more, you must stick with your simple, concise message points. Put yourself in their shoes. People are busy. The simpler you make it, the more likely they will hear and understand.
The system I have developed over the years is simply referred to as the 3-2-1 System. This method requires you to develop no more than three initial message points, each of no more that 21 words. So, three message points with 21 words each. 3-2-1.
After years of study and debate, most research points to a cap of between three and five working memory slots for the average person, with many researchers believing five is the maximum.[i] This means that the average person can only remember three to five blocks of information at one time.
A compelling study by psychologist Nelson Cowan shows the outer threshold of memory at four slots, assuming memory tricks were not used. Earlier studies indicated the existence of seven memory slots, but Cowan determined that to achieve seven, the test subject needed to use memory tricks or would need to cluster information.
Certainly, there are exceptions with many people having above average recall. But when developing message points, you must try and reach as large of an audience as possible. Since most people you’re attempting to reach may or may not be willing listeners, it’s best to use the simplest base line possible so that all people can recall your points. Three seems to be the magic number. Take your phone numbers and social security number for example. Both are broken down in to three separate blocks of no more than four numbers.
The 21 aspect of the 3-2-1 System is designed to ensure your message is simple and easily understood by your intended target audience. To keep a target’s interest, you need to get their attention instantly. And the fewer words you can use to get them to slow down and listen, the easier it will be to keep them engaged. According to a 1990 study from the Harvard Kennedy School, the average “sound bite” on the evening news was 7.3 seconds.[ii] And since I think we can all agree that our attention spans have only grown shorter, to get your audience’s attention, you must do it in less than seven seconds.
An average speaker can say about 21 words in seven seconds. So you guessed it, each talking point should be no more than 21 words. I have spent many late nights cutting talking points down. This is harder to do than it sounds, but once you get in the habit of cutting the fat, it’s amazing how brief you can make a talking point and how clear you will be to your intended audience.
-Brian J. Stephens
CEO of CaissaK12 – A communications firm that specializes in public school communications and helping districts recruit and retain their students.
[i] Cowan, Nelson. “The Magical Mystery Four: How Is Working Memory Capacity Limited,
and Why?” Current directions in psychological science 19.1 (2010): 51–57. 24
November 2015. Web.
[ii] Adatto, Kiku. “Sound Bite Democracy: Network Evening News Presidential Campaign
Coverage, 1968 and 1988.” Cambridge: Joan Shorenstein Barone Center on the
Press, Politics and Public Policy, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard
University, 1990. Web.