Deciding how much detail to provide

I’ve been wondering this week about how communicators can ensure that they provide the right amount of information for their audience – the right amount of detail, presented in the right order, in a way that doesn’t either overwhelm people with too much information or leave major gaps.

I’ve been reflecting on two situations where the information seemed to be lacking: in a consultation I had with a doctor, and in a recruitment letter for a research project.

The consultation was with a doctor I’ve been seeing regularly about my son’s allergy problems. This week, he suggested that we should start an elimination diet. In less than 10 minutes, he gave me an overview of what we needed to cut out, how to manage the elimination diet, and how to challenge foods in a few weeks’ time. Although the pace of the conversation left me a little breathless, I did get all of the information I needed. But I think that’s because I’ve read a lot about allergy and elimination diets, been under the guidance of a dietitian, and tried a different elimination diet in the past. I wonder whether the doctor made a good call that he could be brief with me, or whether other patients end up feeling lost after the very brief overview. What I really missed during the consultation was the time to think through the implications of what he was suggesting and how we might make the diet a reality in our lives.

The research recruitment letter was sent to GPs, and it gave them excellent background to the research project. But it failed as a recruitment letter (very few people have signed up for the research) and I suspect this has a simple cause: the letter provides background information, not a call to action. It doesn’t directly ask doctors to refer their patients to the research, and it doesn’t provide basic information about the benefits for patients in participating (though the longer-term research benefits are clear).

Obviously there’s no simple answer to the question of how much information to provide and what order to put it in. What’s really required is some conscious reflection … a stage in the communication process where we stop and ask ourselves: Have I said everything that my audience needs to know? Have I answered my audience’s most obvious questions? Have I put the information in an order that will make sense for my audience? Have I communicated at a pace that allows my audience to absorb and understand what I’m saying? And, in a face-to-face setting, have I taken the time to check their understanding?