Half-life your message

Elyse Aurbach
Last Updated: January 9, 2024
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How this will help:

Understand the importance of restructuring pedagogical content to be concise and message-driven.
Apply the Half-Life Your Message tool to your own communication and teaching efforts.

The basics

If you are accustomed to teaching in a face-to-face class, you’ve probably lectured at some point. If you are teaching online, It’s very tempting to try to directly convert those lectures to a recorded format or even a videoconference where all students are online at the same time. But that’s not always the best choice. There are several reasons why long media productions (for example, a 45 minute lecture) are not as useful in online settings.

  • Human attention spans are relatively short. Without the social pressure to stay actively engaged in a classroom environment, online learners may be more likely to get distracted and/or multitask. Attention is necessary to learn.
  • There are likely places where your message is not as concise or perhaps even unclear. This is normal! Idea prioritization can be a challenge for academics working to adapt to new ways of communicating and teaching online – academic expertise by nature draws together many related ideas, and communicating all these ideas together can inadvertently inhibit clarity when they are communicated or taught. When you are teaching face-to-face, if there is confusion or misunderstandings in your lecture, it’s fairly easy to find the confused faces, but teaching online frequently eliminates that possibility. This is a great time to evaluate what you are trying to say and how to say it concisely.
  • Long video lectures and/or lots of videos can be a challenge for students who may not have access to high-speed broadband. Finding ways to focus on the key points of the topic can allow you to use media to illustrate the most important ideas.
  • Developing a central message can be helpful for both the instructor and the learner – the instructor can consciously evaluate the core ideas and determine which elements can and should be unpacked, and this helps the learner to extract and take away the most important elements from a lesson. A single central message does not require that this message limits complexity – rather, a good central message can be unpacked into supporting themes and ideas.

Half-Life Your Message (HLYM)

The most effective way to surface a central message is to eliminate all unnecessary detail and distill a core thesis. A very short, 3-minute tool called Half-Life Your Message is one way to approach this task. Derived from a theatre improvisation game (which takes its name from the half-lives of radioactive isotopes!), this tool is most effective as a preparation exercise, near the beginning of effort to shape a lesson or communication.

How it works

Half-Life Your Message involves iteratively shaping a single, core message by imposing progressively shorter time constraints while speaking aloud about an important idea of interest, ideally without prior preparation. Ideally, this is an exercise you can work through with another person, although it could be completed on your own. You do not need someone knowledgeable on the topic! In fact, it may be useful to you if your partner has little knowledge of the topic. It also may be helpful to use a timer so you are not looking at your watch.

To get started:

  1. The communicator speaks without stopping about the topic for 60 seconds (and no more).
  2. Immediately after completing, the communicator starts again and communicates the same idea and content, but now in only 30 seconds.
  3. The communicator completes two progressively shorter rounds of 15 and 8 seconds, respectively – all on the same idea and content.
  4. By the end of the 3-minute task, the communicator has a draft of a central message that he/she/they can evaluate consciously.

Some practices and conditions enable best use of the tool:

  1. The activity should be completed swiftly and in entirety, with only enough time to reset the timing device between rounds of Half-Life. This forces focus and avoids critical analysis of the content of the message until after the activity is done. Don’t overthink it.
  2. Stand up! This can enable excited energy to promote fluency and creativity. This can – and should – be a fun exercise.
  3. Focus on the same idea throughout the entire activity, rather than switching ideas.
  4. Use a timer and consider recording the session. It can be hard to remember what you said while focusing your message at the same time.

Reflective practice is a critical next step after using HLYM to uncover a possible central message. Use these prompts to begin this reflective practice.

  1. Do you like the message that emerged from HLYM? Why or why not?
  2. Does the draft’s central message convey an intended point? How might the message be adapted to convey an idea that is important to your goals with this online module?
  3. What themes are related to this message and could be unpacked for greater richness, in support of the central idea?
  4. Is the draft central message appropriate for your learners, goals, and context of your online teaching experience?

Use these reflections to guide your efforts to iterate on your central message, until you have a draft that you can use to organize the remaining content of your module.

After you’ve developed a solid draft of your central message, you’re well-prepared to unpack the message, organize the core themes, and begin writing the content that will be delivered for the module. Make sure to keep track of other major ideas that might need to be separate modules or teaching efforts, and deploy HLYM to structure these as well.

Practical tips

Half-Life Your Message is also a highly effective tool to prepare for communication efforts outside the classroom, and it can be applied to any context, audience, and goal (including professional presentations/writing, communicating with public audiences, etc). For best results as a preparation tool, concretely identify and describe each of these – the context, audience, and goal – for yourself prior to identifying your central message with HLYM.

It can be helpful to use a nonlinear brainstorm, free-association, or content review of ideas prior to using HLYM. These types of exercises help to bring to the fore relevant concepts that may be important to the central message itself, or to key supporting themes.

HLYM is also an effective tool to use in teaching students how to identify central ideas and theses for communication efforts. Additional instructions on how to use HLYM in the classroom are available in the paper cited and linked below.



Aurbach, Elyse L., Katherine E. Prater, Brandon Patterson, and Brian J. Zikmund-Fisher. “Half-Life Your Message: A Quick, Flexible Tool for Message Discovery.” Science Communication, 40, no. 5 (October 1, 2018): 669–77. https://doi.org/10.1177/1075547018781917.

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