What’s ‘Chunking’ and What’s Not?

by on September 5, 2012 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: Rapid Learning Insights

The most common definition of chunking is “breaking learning into small bits.” I’m not satisfied with that definition. Simply taking an eight-hour instructor-led course and breaking it into eight one-hour segments doesn’t capture the magic of “chunking.” Nor does breaking a 120-minute training video into a dozen 10-minute modules. “Hacking” might be a better term.

Here’s a better definition:

Chunking isolates a single, narrow topic and develops it in a short, simple, memorable way.

“Short” is the easy part. “Simple” and “memorable” are much harder. Steve Jobs was famous for saying that “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

I find a quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes’ to be equally poignant: “I wouldn’t give a fig for simplicity on this side of complexity. But I’d give my right arm for simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

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True chunking requires a cocktail of skills that includes focus, discipline, strong writing skills and an exceptional ability to separate the important from the unimportant. At my company, the Rapid Learning Institute, we call that last quality, “the third eye.” Without it, you can’t possibly say a lot in a little space, and say it memorably, which is what chunking is all about.

One thing I noticed early on as my company built its library of e-learning modules was that it was easy to produce a 60-minute “long-form” module. The goal was to discuss many things and be both complete and accurate. We found that lots of people could do that.

But few succeeded at creating what we call “Quick Takes” – six- to 10-minute modules that zeroed in on a narrow topic such as “How to Nail the First 20 Seconds of a Cold Call” or “How to Terminate an Insubordinate Employee.”

It sounds like that would be easier. But it’s more difficult by a factor of 10. The goal of a Quick Take is to be compelling and memorable, which is harder than being complete and accurate. And the best way to be compelling and memorable is to be counterintuitive, to burrow into a topic and find an “aha” that gives the learner a fresh perspective. For example:

  • Time management isn’t about managing time; it’s about managing priorities.
  • For managers, salary discussions with employees aren’t about managing money; they’re about managing expectations.
  • When a prospect tells a salesperson, “Your price is too high” or “I don’t have the budget for that,” he’s trying to get you to cave on price by making his problem your problem. To overcome this kind of price objection, you have to make his problem his problem.

Finding an “aha” for a learning module is not unlike finding an “angle” for a newspaper column. Or a slogan for an ad campaign. Many times when my team has gone around in circles for hours trying to isolate a compelling “chunk” of learning, I’ve wished I could summon the spirit of H.L. Mencken or Don Draper to help us find the “aha” that will delight our customers.

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