Let’s say I’m coming to your house and I ask you to give me directions. You may say something like this: “Take the third exit at the roundabout, follow the road for about a mile, take a right at the T-junction, next to the pub. Go past the church on your right, up the hill, past the petrol station and we’re on the left, opposite the big white house – black door, tree in garden.” That should do it. Even better if you sketched out a quick drawing with the key landmarks. Because that’s what it’s all about isn’t it – key landmarks? If I’m heading in the right direction and I know what to look out for – the church, the pub, the petrol station – there’s a good chance I’ll find what I’m looking for. You certainly wouldn’t describe every house and every tree. That would be pointless. If you did, it would be a clear case of information overload. Ah, now there’s a term we hear a lot about these days – information overload. We’ve all complained about it at some point, but is it really such a problem and do we really know what we’re complaining about?
The human brain can store roughly three terabytes of information. It sounds impressive, until you realise that this is about one millionth of the information now produced in the world each day. What it all means is that our brain has to be extremely selective in what it chooses to remember. In his recent best-seller The Signal and the Noise, Nate Silver uses the art and science of ‘prediction’ to search for meaning – what he calls the ‘signal’ – amongst the noise of Big Data. I really like the analogy of the signal and the noise, and it’s a good one for us communicators. How do we find the engaging narrative (the signal) among the jargon and detail (the noise)? Biology should be on our side.
As Silver writes in his book, human beings do not have very many natural defences. We’re not particularly fast or strong. We don’t have claws, fangs of armour and we don’t spit venom. We can’t camouflage ourselves and we can’t fly. “Instead”, he says, “we survive by means of our wits. Our minds are quick. We are wired to detect patterns and respond to opportunities and threats without hesitation.” Our brain instinctively seeks simplicity, so it can process new information quickly and react accordingly – it seeks the signal amid the noise. Twitter isn’t popular because people are lazy, it’s just meeting the natural desire for brevity, like the cave drawings, jungle drums and smoke signals of days gone by. The trouble is, it can sometimes find the wrong signal, or a pattern that isn’t actually there. And in the workplace, that can be bad for business, so that’s where we try to step in – to help our people find the right signal.
When people complain about information overload I don’t think it’s so much about the ‘quantity of data’ but the ‘lack of signal’. A hundred new emails in your inbox in the morning is only information overload if most of them contain pointless information (noise). If every single one contained information relevant to what you’re working on, it’s not information overload (it may be a high workload, but that’s different). That’s the difference between communication and information. Information is ‘stuff’ or ‘data’ whereas communication is about making a connection. You don’t hear people talk about communication overload. It’s not the quantity that’s the problem, it’s the quality. We can’t do much about the amount of information out there. Just like the birth of language and the invention of the printing press, the web has unleashed an unstoppable tsunami of information, which is now growing by 2.5 quintillion bytes per day. But how much of that is useful? It’s a noisy world out there, so fellow communicators, get out and find that damn signal.