thin slicing

This is the final installment of a blog series discussing the importance of employing information design in your soft-skills e-learning. This post examines thin slicing as a design tool. View the first post here, and the second post here 

Legacy e-learning was long and boring. New e-learning is short and compelling.

The “short” part of that equation is pretty simple. Lots of e-learning libraries are chunking their long programs. For example, they are breaking an hour-long program into six 10-minute segments. This makes perfect sense given the realities of a workforce with shortening attention spans.

But does chunking a long program make it compelling? Not really. To be compelling, you need more. One approach is what we call “thin slicing.” 

Defining thin slicing

Although, thin slicing sounds a little bit like chunking, it is really the exact opposite. Chunking starts big—it takes a lot of information and breaks it into smaller bits. However, thin slicing starts small—it isolates a narrow, compelling insight and expands it into a bite-size learning module. 

You may recall that the term “thin slicing” was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Blink. In the world of psychology and philosophy it describes the brain’s ability to intuitively spot “thin slices” of experience and, with very limited information, draw powerful and surprisingly accurate conclusions.  

We have hi-jacked the term, altered its meaning a bit, and applied it to learning. Thin slicing is about isolating thin slices of learning and delivering powerful insights from very limited information.

Let me unpack that thought: A thin slicer creating soft-skills programs might scour academic and institutional research looking for discoveries that could trigger a burst of insight for a learner. Ideally, a thin slice introduces one concept that changes one behavior and leads to one outcome. 

Case in point

To understand the concept better, consider the following example: 


Thin slice:  a study out of Dartmouth University reveals the most effective way to persuade people of facts that contradict their core beliefs. Was it by expressing the facts through words? Presenting those same facts in charts and graphs? Or using words embellished by flattery?

The answer is charts and graphs. The researchers concluded that because visuals are the “native language” of the human brain, we tend to accept them at face value. Words came much later in our evolutionary development and are less trustworthy. In fact, when people hear words that contradict their beliefs, they tend to argue.

Now, for a salesperson whose job is all about persuasion, this “thin slice” insight can be very powerful. When one of our customers showed a module containing this thin slice of learning to his entire sales team, they had a collective “a-ha” moment. They realized that their entire canned sales presentation, which they showed to new prospects several times per week, was almost entirely words. They called for a “Manhattan Project” to add visuals and cut words.

A single insight, delivered in a seven-minute learning module, changed the way a company presented itself to its market. That’s how powerful thin slicing can be. 

Moving forward 

If thin slicing sounds like a radically different way to learn, you’re right. And it’s one that many instructional designers struggle with. They were trained to produce linear, logical, and complete learning events. 

Thin slicing is more impressionistic than linear. It’s more emotional than logical. And it’s incomplete by design.

The research shows that digital natives—and even older workers who are comfortable with technology—want to absorb information in short, compelling, and disjointed bursts. It would be a mistake for any instructional designer to underestimate the challenge of creating e-learning that will appeal to modern learners. They have very short attention spans, different expectations, and—let’s be frank—many options. 

Indeed, the bar is set high. We have little alternative to providing a lot of value in a little space. Thin slicing is one way to do it.