Managing information overload | Less is more

December 1, 2010

Information is difficult to escape these days.

Our audiences see advertising messages printed on water cooler cups, embossed into the cheese on their pizza — even tattooed onto human skin. People face an average of 5,000 attempts to get their attention every day, according to research. That’s nearly 2 million messages a year.

This means that when your blog post, press release or newsletter lands in your reader’s inbox or RSS feed, it competes with 4,999 other things for their time, interest and energy. No wonder some 70 percent of American workers say they feel overwhelmed by information, according to a Families and Work Institute survey released this past May.
Be short and tweet
With all that information, you’d think people would be able to make great decisions. Sadly, the opposite is true. The more information people get, it seems, the worse their decision-making skills become, Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his 2005 book “Blink:  The Power of  Thinking Without Thinking.”

Shoppers buy more when they have fewer options. In one study, Sheena Iyengar, a professor at Columbia Business School, set up a tasting booth of gourmet jams. When offered six flavors, 30 percent of people who stopped by the booth bought jam.  When faced with 24 options, only 3 percent of shoppers made a purchase.

Accountants were most effective at predicting whether a company would go bankrupt within three years when they had six financial ratios to work with. When they had eight pieces of data, their predictions were less accurate.

ER doctors are also more effective with less information.  A cardiologist named Lee Goldman found that when ER doctors have three pieces of information about their patients, they diagnose heart attacks correctly 95 percent of the time. When doctors have more information, they diagnose heart attacks correctly only 75 percent to 89 percent of the time.

Gladwell wrote of Goldman’s research:  “We take it, as a given, that the more information decision-makers have, the better off they are. But what does the Goldman algorithm say? Quite the opposite: that all that extra information isn’t actually an advantage at all. In fact, that extra information is more than useless.”
Set word count limits
One way to inform readers without numbing them is to set copy length limits.

The right length for each piece depends on the topic, audience, medium, budget and other factors. But here’s some research that can help you set word count limits for the pieces your group writes most often:

The recommended length for the average press release has dropped from 400 words in print to 250 words online, according to Internet marketing strategist B.L. Ochman. How are you responding to the obstacles of screen reading in your PR writing?

Procter & Gamble famously limits memos to a single page “to ensure crisp, rigorous and focused analysis.” How long are your messages to clients and staff?

While Twitter cuts you off at 140 characters, the better limit for a tweet is 129 characters, according to usability expert Jakob Nielsen.  That allows for the average 11-character attribution that gets added whenever someone retweets your status update.

Sure, you can always keep smothering your readers with information. But how likely are they to read it? And even if they do read it, what’s the chance that your long messages are getting through to them? 

Copyright © 2010 Ann Wylie.  All rights reserved.

Ann Wylie

Ann Wylie ( works with communicators who want to reach more readers and with organizations that want to get the word out. To learn more about her training, consulting or writing and editing services, contact her at


Susan Hart says:

I find this post both interesting and contradictory. While the rationale that too much information can be paralyzing, and too many choices can be overwhelming (I feel like this), Coca-Cola recently unveiled a new product based on just the opposite strategy of "the more choices, the better" (see Ann, I'd be interested in your thoughts on this, as well as thoughts from other professionals. Thanks for posting.

Dec. 2, 2010

Post a Comment

Editor’s Note: Please limit your comments to the specific post. We reserve the right to omit any response that is not related to the article or that may be considered objectionable.


To help us ensure that you are a real human, please type the total number of circles that appear in the following images in the box below.

(image of four circles) + (image of six circles) + (image of eight circles) =