The Magical Number Seven

If you want your audiences to remember what you have to say, there are techniques that can be used to help people retain your message. Grouping information into bite-sized chunks can help readers recall important content you want them to remember. This is called chunking.

In the mid-50s, cognitive psychologist George A. Miller, wrote about the concept of chunking in a paper titled “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two.” Long story short, human memory can store up to seven bits (chunks) of information in short-term memory, plus or minus two. In other words, some people can store nine chunks of information, others five, thus the “plus or minus” part of the equation. This is why phone numbers are seven digits (or they used to be!).

These chunks of information can be stored in short-term memory for about 30 seconds before it is forgotten. If you look at billboards, notice that the ones you can remember as you drive past. At 70 mph the industry average time for reading a billboard is six seconds. So, around six words is all you get for your message.

With the many marketing messages we are all exposed to on a daily basis, taking into account print material, online videos, internet ads, text ads, television, radio, and, yes, billboards, it’s hard to break through the clutter. Getting your audience to remember information, particularly your information, is a challenge.

In marketing, to write something that will be remembered, scan what you have written, pull out relevant information, and make a list of no more than seven items.

Using a list is a good idea because you can arrange it in chronological order putting the most important information first.

To determine information hierarchy, start at the highest level. Determine how your content should be organized in a logical order. Think in terms of memory: do you really need all that information? Less is more. This is really important when writing web content.

Writing for the Web: Who are you writing for?

Write for your audience. By first identifying your audience you can write for a level that will be meaningful to them.

  • Chunk your content. Chunking your content makes it more scannable by breaking it into manageable sections.
  • Put your most important content first. Start with what’s most important to your audience and then provide more details.
  • Use short sentences and paragraphs. The ideal is no more than 20 words per sentence, five sentences per paragraph. Use dashes instead of semi-colons or break the sentence into two.
  • Use words your audience will use. By using keywords your users would use, you will help them understand the copy and it will help optimize it for search engines.
  • Have clear headlines and subheads. Questions, especially those with pronouns are particularly effective.
  • Use bullets and numbered lists. One sentence and two bullets are easier to read than three sentences.

Test your content

Use Microsoft Word’s Readability Statistics feature—part of the Spelling and Grammar check—to measure reading ease and grade level. You can improve readability by using active voice, short words, sentences, and paragraphs.

This document was written at an eighth-grade level. Average sentences per paragraph were two and average words per sentence was 14.1

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