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CHUNKING - Grouping Information for Clear Communication

By Jayne Jenkins (1498 words)
Posted in Communication Skills on September 26, 2014

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Communication is not just about getting someone to hear or remember something, it is about helping him or her make sense of it and take action!


Think about the amount of information you have to process each day — reports, meetings, one on ones, emails and more!  Some information is easy to understand and retain; some is not. The difference is in how the information is presented. 


Grouping information so that your audience easily understands you is known as “chunking.”

The concept of chunking is said to have originated in the 1950s by cognitive psychologist George A. Miller who wrote about the theory in a paper titled “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two:  Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information.” In summary, he reasoned that the human memory span (of young adults) was approximately seven items and that the memory span is limited in terms of chunks – also referred to as a unit of presented material that a person recognizes.  Evidence that chunking works is all around us.  For example, phone numbers and credit card numbers are chunked in groups of three or four numbers.  And, when we see a phone number that is not chunked, it’s harder to remember. 


When our communication is chunked effectively, it becomes logical and organized, which then enhances your audience’s ability to understand. Communication that is chunked and hierarchical gives your listeners quick access to the big picture, allows them to connect the dots to their sense of purpose and to understand what is needed from them.


When we are communicating, we need to be aware that the other person can only listen to, process and understand a limited amount of information before hitting overload.  It takes time for a person to hear and assimilate what is being said (or written). That's why when we communicate "less is more.”  Message chunking involves breaking up the information you have and conveying it into smaller, well-organized and related pieces or chunks. 


Communicating in One-to-One Conversations

Consider a situation where you need to offer feedback to a team member.  Instead of dumping the entire barrel on the person, consider following the steps below:

  1. Prior to having the conversation, it is important that you take time to chunk the information you want to communicate.  

  2. At the beginning of the conversation, start by talking only about the first chunk of information. 

  3. After you have delivered the first chunk, check with the other person to ensure that he/she understands. 

  4. Once the recipient understands, allow the person time to reflect.

  5. Then move to the next chunk, making sure the person is clear about the relationship between one chunk and the next. 


One of the key elements here is that the more you talk without allowing people to assimilate what you are saying, the less likely they will be to understand, and that they are more likely to get lost completely. 


What Type of Communication STYLE Works for You?

  • When you read a 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 you want? 


We each have our own style of communicating and receiving information. Some of us chatter away while others share single words.  Some only want the big picture while others need all the detail. By chunking information and matching your style to the needs of each person on your team, you can communicate more clearly. 


Decide How Much to Communicate:  Brief or Lengthy 

We all have had team members who answer our question with a novel the size of War and Peace. These are individuals who need large quantities of data. On the flip side, there are others who answer a question with a single word and getting more information or details is like pulling teeth. However, the majority of people only need single sentences or short paragraphs. Matching the chunk size of another person’s need is a proven way to communicate clearly.  When you match a person’s chunk you can know that you’re communicating exactly the amount of information his/her mind is accustomed to processing. 


Decide What to Communicate: Big Picture or the Details 

Another aspect of chunking is type of information the person needs. Some people are big picture people and others need plenty of detail.  We are all familiar with the manager who didn’t want the detail of what was delaying your project because all he/she cared about was delivery.  And, of course you have the opposite with the managers who micromanage everything! (Not recommended!).


When we recognize the type of information another person needs to be comfortable and feel informed, we can match the information we choose to share with the person’s unique needs. That accelerates and streamlines your communication.  For example, if we give a big picture person all the details, he/she will zone out and will likely become impatient.  For this type of person, is best to start with their preferred communication style and then ask what else the person needs or wants to know.


How do we know what a person needs in terms of chunks? Like anything it takes time, but usually not too much.  Typically, if you observe a person for a while, you can start to learn his/her style.  Then when you communicate with that person, mirror his/her style by sharing the same type and amount of information that person would naturally share with others.



  • Rule of thumb – Use three to five chunks of information for maximum recall.  When you're talking to one individual, you can easily assess how he or she is retaining the information. Live or video communication will certainly help you observe this even better because you can see the body language. However, when communicating with several people, you cannot easily assess their individual retention of information, so limit yourself to three individual points if you want everyone to absorb what you're saying. 

  • When your audience is new to a subject, use less information per chunk. When the audience is knowledgeable on the subject, then you can use more.  Remember that the size of the chunk depends on the knowledge of the person receiving the information.  


Recommended Action:

  • Identify your own communication style.

  • Observe and take note of the style of each member of your team.

  • Practice chunking your messages and then delivering it to match your audience’s style.

  • Notice the immediate, positive impact. 


While this idea of chunking, or some of our Churchill tools, may not necessarily be a new concept to you or may not teach you something new, it should help you realize that something you have been doing subconsciously is right, as well as alerting you to do it more often, with more confidence… and maybe even better too! 



{#/pub/images/JayneJenkins3.jpg}Written by Jayne Jenkins, CEO Churchill Leadership Group-Jayne is a Fortune 500 Leadership business veteran working for some of the largest companies in the world including Exxon, AstraZeneca and Sanofi.  For over 23 years, Jayne refined her team development and leadership capabilities and built finely-tuned sales teams, responsible for delivering annual sales over $600M.  Through her effective leadership and collaboration, Jayne and her team took market share of a $4Bn business unit from 32 to 41% in just four years. Jayne has also been successful in Marketing, Strategic Operations and Organization Development, so she understands many key business areas. Jayne founded Churchill Leadership Group, an Executive Consulting and Coaching Company.  Churchill’s mission is to increase organizational effectiveness by growing leadership skills and employee engagement through a focus on STRENGTHS for sustainable results. This enables corporate teams, across industries, to enjoy outstanding results.  Jayne worked with Marcus Buckingham, renowned author/STRENGTHS expert (Now Discover Your Strengths/First Break All the Rules/STAND OUT), and his team to become a “Master Strengths Coach and Workshop Facilitator.”


Do you have a question for Jayne?  Post it in our Senior Manager Community and she will be happy to help: Ask an Expert


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Comments (2)

Shabnam posted on: October 12, 2014

Mam! Your communication strategies are simple but effective, for they describe the obvious. However, many of us have a tendency to overlook the obvious! Thank you so much for sharing your insightful views on this subject.

Ralph Kinnard posted on: December 30, 2017

Thank you so much for sharing your knowledgeable views on Group communication.

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