How Communicators Can Fight Information Overload: A New IABC Research Foundation Study Offers Case Studies and Tips to Help Make Your Messages Memorable

By Eppler, Martin J.; Mengis, Jeanne | Communication World, May-June 2009 | Go to article overview

How Communicators Can Fight Information Overload: A New IABC Research Foundation Study Offers Case Studies and Tips to Help Make Your Messages Memorable


Eppler, Martin J., Mengis, Jeanne, Communication World


The situation is all too familiar: 50 new messages in your e-mail inbox, four reports that demand your attention, a new intranet section to review, an interesting web site to check out, plus the new issue of a trade journal that you should read and pass on to colleagues. And all of this while attending meetings and workshops, answering phone calls and trying to come up with solutions to pressing problems. You are experiencing information overload: too much information, too little time. But, as a professional communicator, you might actually be part of the problem.

When your information-processing needs exceed your information-processing capacity, you experience overload, a state where more information actually reduces your reasoning and decision-making abilities. More information leads to less knowledge. Because of this, you feel overwhelmed and unable to make the right decision--the so-called paralysis by analysis. You may even feel annoyed, stressed, frustrated or angry.

So far, this topic has been mainly addressed from a receiver's or audience's point of view. The recent IABC Research Foundation report Preparing Message, for Information Overload Environments, however, looks at it from the sender's side, and examines his or her role in reducing information overload for recipients.

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Information overload has been identified as a huge impediment to productivity in organizations. Overload is caused not only by the sheer quantity of information (that is, volume and intensity), but also by more qualitative aspects, such as ambiguity, diversity or novelty. Communicators can actively control these aspects and reduce overload for their target groups.

The report presents 16 real-life examples of how to effectively reduce information overload in business communication. The companies profiled range from such giants as Procter & Gamble, Microsoft, UBS, IBM and Nokia, to lesser-known companies such as Trainiac, Xplane, Bashiba and Reflact. Many of these organizations have developed innovative ways to reduce or transform their messages in order to accommodate the time and attention constraints of their readers. A particularly useful way to do so is through information visualization.

The survey of IABC members on which the report is based shows that visualized information helps synthesize and aggregate material and make it easier to understand. Yet many are not using this powerful way of communicating, largely because they don't know how or don't have the right tools (see "Members See Barriers to Visualization Benefits," right).

7 simple steps

Here are seven ideas that you can use to reduce information overload for your internal and external audiences.

1. Time it well. Provide information when it is needed or when it is likely to receive the most attention. Avoid peak times when employees or clients are tired or busy with other things.

2. Provide an overview. Briefly tell your audience first what the communication is about and why it is important and to whom, and then offer more detailed information.

3. Visualize. Use simple and systematic diagrams or visual metaphors to summarize your messages and help your audience get an overview of your main points.

4. Keep it consistent. Use a clear structure for your messages that remains the same over time. …

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