With all the talk about how our attention spans are suffering from our collective technology addiction, perhaps there is at least one positive consequence of thumb-typing and 140-character limits. It forces us to be more focused in our communication, a notion that has applications in the education and business sides of higher education.
Peter Norvig understands the power of focused attention and incorporated this into the design of the online Introduction to Artificial Intelligence class enrolling more than 100,000 students. The course content videos they created were generally 2 minutes long, never more than 6 minutes. In a recent TEDTalk Norvig said, “We learned from Khan Academy that short, 10-minute videos worked much better than trying to record an hour-long lecture and put it on the small format screen. We decided to go even shorter and more interactive.”
For written assignments, we assign shorter papers and warn students that writing shorter papers is often harder. They are forced to prioritize material, whittle down content and write concisely. A recent Harvard Business Review blog post, Yes, College Essays Are Ruining our Economy, points out how lengthy written assignments might have unintended consequences. As part of his argument, he reminds us that the US Constitution is 5,000 words, Apple iTunes Terms and Conditions is 20,000 words and the average graduate thesis is 30,000+ words.
In marketing we know picking one message to highlight and targeting a specific audience can be more effective than touting all your product’s benefits to the world. In online advertising specifically, research has shown that creative restrictions, such as a static image or small space, can help ads be more successful as they force the messages to be as direct as possible. In designing mobile websites for those of us who increasingly access the internet from our phones, marketers who can be ruthless in editing down website text will also be at an advantage.
Of course there is a time and place for lengthy communication and lots of details. The idea here is that it can much more challenging to write shorter papers, lectures and online ads. It requires a clearer understanding of the overarching goal of the communication – what’s most important? Then, it requires more time to select the right ideas and words to express them. However, often the finished product can be that much more influential.