Information Product Creation – Using the Mind’s Limitations to an Advantage

When creating your information products you should always take into account your audience’s ability to process information. This is true whether you are talking about chunking information or simply displaying it.

The cognitive limit — the rule of seven plus or minus two — is one expression of your audience’s ability to absorb and process information. It affects everything you do when creating your information products. Now there’s nothing that forces you to pay attention to this limitation — after all it’s your product. But it will greatly affect how your audience perceives the quality of your product.

So what does this seven plus or minus two mean?

Above nine items the brain needs to process the information through long term memory. Short term memory can’t hold more than nine items. Below five items the brain will decide that the information isn’t that important and will process it and discard it from short term memory. As the number of items approaches the limits the brain begins to flip between the two situations.

So how do we use this mental trait in our products?

The first use is in the recognition of the concept of mental noise. Basically, as the amount of information clamoring for a person’s attention increases, their ability to process information falls.

What does this mean to us as information product creators?

First, it means that all the numbers in the rest of the article should be considered as maximums. As your audience is bombarded with information you need to reduce the target number in order to achieve the same level of information. For example, today, three items not four is usually considered optimum.

Second, it means that when you are training (i.e. presenting a live product), you need to consider the environment — both immediate and overall. Your audience will always learn better if you give them a quiet, calm, low extraneous information environment. However, their environment outside the training area will also affect their ability to absorb information.

Third, it means that we need to modify our presentation based on the environments. You may need to overcome the external stimulus in order to be heard at all. Figuratively, you may need to shout to be heard!

Going on to the cognitive limit itself, the next obvious use is at the low end of the cognitive limit. The brain will begin to pay attention at three, four and five items. Traditionally, it was suggested that four points was optimum for most slides. Why? Because at four points the brain says, “pay attention, this might be important”. That allowed the presenter to ride the wave and drive the actual information being presented home without overloading the audience. Five was too many because then the audience will pay too much attention to the slide.

The third use is at the high end. When organizing an information product we might be tempted to identify more than nine chunks of information in our product. Unfortunately, our brains can’t handle that much information in short term memory. But we also cannot process information directly into long term memory. Result? If you present a slide with more than nine items on it the audience will ignore the slide. They’ll go to sleep. You’ll lose them. The optimum number of chunks of information — chapters, modules or sections — is always less than seven. However, when presenting in a non-written mode — for example, a seminar or webinar — you actually should limit the modules to no more than five.