How To Tackle Information Overload
"Distringit librorum multitudo."
To be clear, the above is not gibberish -- nor did I decide in a fit of rage to start banging my keyboard, bookending that in quotes. Although, on second thought, sometimes the idea does come up for a vote -- especially around 5:30 a.m. when before I turn to my hubby I turn on my iPad and BlackBerry to see what’s in the news, on the blogs and the dozens of emails that have come in overnight. That’s the typical start of another day in PR agencyland.
The opener is actually a Latin quote from the Ancient Roman philosopher Seneca, who in the first century AD lamented that “the abundance of books is a distraction.”
Fast-forward 2,000 years -- and if Seneca were alive today, he’d likely dunk his head in the nearest aqueduct, overwhelmed by today’s digital information onslaught. Never mind the estimated 700,000 scrolls the Royal Library of Alexandria held -- the ancient world’s most important information repository. I can get three-quarters of a million hits on a single Google search on my BlackBerry while I’m reviewing and skimming texts on three other screens in my office, all at the same time.
But this isn’t a morning rant. Information overload -- and how it affects industries like PR -- is a very serious matter. It’s become so troublesome that tech industry writer Jonathan B. Spira, author of “Overload! How Too Much Information is Hazardous to your Organization,” estimates that info inundation and the productivity inefficiencies it generates cost the U.S. economy $1 trillion in 2010. $1 trillion. There is even an Information Overload Awareness Day to help us poor sufferers. Ironically, though, I didn’t get that email.
What spurred this article was a post I read on the Council of Public Relations Firms blog, which I had hoped would offer up some concrete advice. It wasn’t a bad post per se, nor was it poorly written. It’s just that the nine-paragraph “novella” was about five paragraphs too long.
The advice boiled down to: carving out time to have in-person meetings with colleagues rather than wasting digital ink over long emails and missed communications, setting aside “free thinking” time to allow yourself a chance to properly digest the words you’ve consumed, and skim and scan material rather than dig deep. You see? I summed up the entire article in 46 words. That’s a 96% reduction.
It may be hard for us in the PR industry to admit, and it’s probably just as much of a bitter pill for our clients, but so much of what we read (and write) can be said in far less space. And if it can be said in less physical or digital space, the information those words carry takes up less brain space too. That should leave all of us with more brain juice to do our jobs better and in less time.
Newspaper editors are fond of the expression “tight and bright” to describe copy. Barring The New York Times and few other heavy hitters, most news stories come in at 500-700 words. Still too long? No problem. The inverted pyramid style of writing that is popular in journalism front-loads the most important information, so that the five Ws are answered no later than the third or fourth paragraph. Usually.
Beyond more effective skimming and an industry commitment to churning out greater substance and less fluff, some measure of tuning out might be in order. Just because today’s technology allows endless publishing and limitless word counts doesn’t mean we must feel compelled to fill that virtual space every time
Often I find myself giving the same advice to clients, especially ones where the glut of incoming data can sometimes dim the picture rather than brighten it.
A little more Googling revealed that the latest Information Overload event was held in February 2012. Considering the scope of information inundation and its predicted growth, it’s likely the event won’t be its last. And if I manage to get caught up and….and….and…. I’ll make a point of attending the next gathering.
Besides, more information can’t hurt.
Or can it?