John La Valle, President of the Society for NLP discusses and demonstrates how paying attention to chunk size can really help your work to be more readable.
I continue to get requests to publish this one over again. I’m guessing that people like to distribute this one around their office!! So here it is. Enjoy!
IN RECENT DAYS, I have been reminded about the importance of the chunk size of information, especially with respect to the written word, letters, etc. I have been ever so curious about what the difference is between what I read and what I won’t read. Then how do I decide what is easier for me to read through and understand and use, or what is more difficult for me to understand and therefore, throw away.
AND SO I STARTED to take a more distant view of my first step: I look at the page and the size of the paragraphs. If the paragraphs are large, I skip over them. If they’re smaller, I tend to read them through.
THEN I DID AN EXPERIMENT on myself: I took some things that I would have discarded with larger paragraphs and read them through. I found quite a bit of difficulty understanding each paragraph. So I began to think, “Is there something wrong with my reading skills?” I hoped not.
AND SO I THEN took some of the larger paragraphs and just chunked them smaller (at least where it made some sense). It was easier to read through, and a little easier to understand, but I was still not satisfied. I found myself making some changes to their work. (These were direct mail letters I was reading.)
SO THEN I NOTICED what changes I found myself making and I discovered it was mostly punctuation and/or grammatical corrections. So then I got *really* curious because I was on to something.
I WENT BACK TO the larger paragraphs and started to make corrections and found myself making even more corrections, some I hadn’t made when I made the paragraphs smaller. “Hmmmmmmm,” was what I said, actually.
THEN I LOOKED AT some of the other writings that came with smaller paragraphs. Remember, these were the ones I would read through, understand, and perhaps respond to. Indeed I had found some errors, but they didn’t really matter to me. In fact, if I had already read through them, then I really hadn’t noticed the errors and the people who had sent them had already accomplished their initial objective: I had read them.
WELL THAT WAS IT, now I had to know how this works. And then I started remembering concepts from my other interests in natural language processing (a.k.a. “nlp”) and semantics and syntactic structures.
WHEN FIRST LOOKING AT THE WHOLE paragraph, we first establish, or use, what’s known as “lookahead” and the established limitations of that. In essence, based on the chunk size of the input, we make a decision about the “structure” of the input, and that decision most likely will not be changed. (And so I throw it away, if I decide the “lookahead” is more than I am willing to undertake.)
NOW BASED ON THE “lookahead”, we have an input “buffer” (how much information can we hold before processing), a set of rules (grammar conditions to be met) and a working stack (how much of the input can be parsed/processed within any given operation). (If you have ever encountered a “stack overflow” error on your computers, you’ll know what happens).
NOW THERE ARE ACTUALLY many other routines and subroutines that can operate the input data. For example some of it can be added to a “tree” that is on the stack to be run later; some rules may be executed when the input matches a rule’s “pattern”, etc. The point for us here is that, other things also happen with the information.
AND SO NOW WE HAVE another distinction about how we first choose which information we will process, or not.
JUST AS THERE ARE different computer programs for parsing information, so must there be different ways inside our brains. Like, there must be a way of selecting what type of parsing we will use and therefore what rules will we apply. Will we use “strict” rules, or “informal” rules, where more or less “ill-formed” sentences will be allowed to be input into our brains and processed?
AT ANY RATE, the initial choice with the written word is made on the basis of the “lookahead” and its limitations, as well as the structure of the input (information).
SO WHAT DOES THIS MEAN for us here? Keeping the size of your paragraphs smaller will actually enable the reader to first choose to read it, and second to understand it more easily.