Researchers, scientists, and practitioners have given risk communicators handy tools for communicating more effectively. Among these tools are those having to do with two magic numbers: seven and three.
In 1956 Professor George Miller from Princeton University published his seminal paper “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information.”
In addition to helping lay the foundation for the fields of cognitive psychology and neuroscience, the paper quantified the limits of short-term memory for low-stress situations, with the average limit found to be seven items.
Hence the seven-digit phone number (though, of course, with cell phone contact groups, fewer and fewer people memorize phone numbers outside of their own).
Per Miller’s findings, more than seven to nine items received at a time create information overload, something to keep in mind when communicating risk, high-concern, and crisis information.
The Rule of Three
Think of how often the number three affects guidance you receive and information you have to process.
You (1) stop, (2) drop, and (3) roll. You dial three digits for 911. Even the stories we enjoy usually (though not always) follow a three-act structure.
Research shows that, in general, the human brain processes information better when it is presented in groups of three.
It isn’t a coincidence that message maps are composed of three main messages, each supported by three pieces of additional information.
Pathway Prompt: What are other instances where three and seven occur in the delivery or use of information?
Communicating Effectively When Feelings, Fears, and Facts Collide
More information about risk, high-concern, and crisis communication can be found in Dr. Covello’s video-based course Pathway to Risk, High-Concern, and Crisis Communication. This master class introduces communicators to the tools and techniques for communicating effectively—while providing greater insight into why audiences react the way they do during times of stress.
The course comprises nine video lectures and accompanying text modules, plus supplemental materials for putting valuable lessons into practice.
More information about the course, including group rates and partnering opportunities, can be found by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Vincent Covello
Dr. Vincent Covello, director of the Center for Risk Communication, is one of the world’s leading experts and practitioners on risk, high-concern, and crisis communication. He is the author of more than 150 articles in scientific journals and the author/editor of more than 20 books. Dr. Covello is a consultant, writer, and teacher. He is a frequent keynote speaker and has conducted communication skills training for thousands.
Miller, G. (1956). “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information.” Psychological Review 63.