Why Cognitive Load Theory Needs to be Applied to Every Presentation

Even if you are the most engaging speaker in the world, you won’t have as big an impact without understanding cognitive load theory (CLT). This theory holds especially important when it comes to excelling in presentation design.

CLT is an instructional theory that states that our working memory is limited. In other words, our brains can only absorb so much information when new ideas are shared or presented to us.

It’s created by three demands: intrinsic, extraneous and germane.

The Intrinsic Load

This load represents how difficult a topic or subject matter is to learn. Some pieces of information are easy to digest while other pieces of information can be far more complex. Your responsibility as the presenter is to always keep it simple, to keep your content memorable. You may be familiar with the term “chunking,” or the breaking down of information. Utilize this technique.

Presentation Tip: When thinking about items like charts and diagrams, break them down into bite-size pieces by using builds and transitions to show how everything comes together.

The Extraneous Load

The extraneous load refers to how information is presented to someone. As a presenter, you have control over the extraneous load. For instance, I can show you a circle or instead try to verbalize what a circle looks like, which would be a far more difficult task. Remember, the human brain prefers spatial, visual learning.

Presentation Tip: Learn how to use visuals correctly and aptly when presenting. Make sure your visuals support the message you are trying to convey.

The Germane Load

Malcolm Gladwell and others have shared the idea that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. The connections, processes and building blocks that take place in our brains to develop this level of expertise are the germane load.

Presentation Tip: Make sure your choice of content and imagery “connects the dots” for your viewers, so that they can understand more quickly what you’re teaching them. You can ensure this by opting for visual storytelling. Anything that provides context will help with the learning process.

Remember, the human brain can only take in so much information. Aim for simplicity and your information will be remembered.

About the Author

Scott Schwertly is the author of How to Be a Presentation God and CEO of Ethos3, a Nashville, TN-based presentation boutique providing professional presentation design and training for national and international clients ranging from Fortune 500 companies to branded individuals like Guy Kawasaki. If Scott is not working with his team building presentations, you will find him in the pool, on the bike, or on a long run. Scott lives in Nashville, TN with his wife and three dogs. He has a B.A. and M.B.A. from Harding University. Find Scott on Google+.

Creative Commons License
Stress by Andrew Imanaka is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://www.flickr.com/photos/pandrewnguyen/5348057660/.

6 Responses to “Why Cognitive Load Theory Needs to be Applied to Every Presentation”

  1. John G Keogh

    very good but I would add the guidance that clarifies the actual words (and images) to use which should cater for people in the audience who are visual, auditory and kinaesthetic. Layered on top of this is the type and make-up of the audience: ie. finance folks may require more auditory and kinaesthetic whereas IT may require more visual.

  2. ignacio sanabria

    Actually, one simple and lonely word will suffice. It will force the audience to ”speculate” what the presentation is all about.

  3. Wm Fred Baty

    Thanks for sharing. Now to revamp about 1200 slides!

  4. doug-jensen

    So much of the unlimited advice about giving good presentations is (at least implicitly) oriented toward management and humanities — meaning limited suitability to many presentations in mathematics (e.g., about the proof of a theorem), sciences, and engineering. I believe that applying CLT in principle to these fields is valuable, but the typical presentation tips are of limited relevance.