Foxtrot Oscar presentations – or Whisky Tango Foxtrot

Foxtrot Oscar? Sorry, what?  Well to be honest, I’ve just sworn. Quick badly in fact. If you know what I’ve done great, and welcome to the club. If you don’t let me explain that Foxtrot, Oscar, Whiskey and Tango are part of the phonetic alphabet used when you really, really, don’t want to have the letters you’re spelling out over the phone, for example, to be mis-understood.

The phonetic alphabet

My car’s registration plate, for example finishes with Sierra, Foxtrot, X-ray.

Each work represents a letter, and no two of them sound even remotely similar. You can probably figure out what Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a slang term for by now! 😉

That’s the good news. The bad news is that at least some of you good folks won’t have had the faintest idea what I was talking about. And those of you that do will, (unless you’re ex-Military etc.) will have had to spend at least some of your head-space translating the phonetic alphabet into English and then again from the literal English letters into the idioms. 

WTF does Whiskey Tango Foxtrot mean?

In the former case, where you don’t know the language being used, it was effectively like I was using jargon that you didn’t know. Imagine doing that in a presentation – nothing works.

In the latter case, where you did know the language but weren’t totally fluent, it increases your audiences ‘cognitive load’.  Cognitive load is the amount of ‘brain effort’ people have to make to understand your message and we can think of it as having three parts.  The first is what’s called ‘Intrinsic Load’ and that’s the measure of how hard something is to underrated because of how hard it is to understand – basically saying that Advanced Calculus has a higher Intrinsic load than simple addition, for example. It’s fixed (more or less) for any given topic).

But by using Whiskey Tango Foxtrot – or another way of making the explanation more complicated I’ve raised what’s called the Extraneous Cognitive Load… that’s the brain-load for your audience that has to do because of how badly something has been explained. (For example, if you speak in German to someone who can just about understand, but only by concentrating very hard, you increase the effort they have to make to understand you – and that in turn reduces the amount of ‘brain-space’ they have available to understand your content… which is what it’s about, after all.)

Total load is the sum of those things (plus something called Germane Load, but that’s not very relevant for now) and if the sum of the different types of cognitive load exceed the audience’s ability to cope (cognitive capacity) the they’ll not take something in.

Put brutally jargon and bad explanations increase cognitive load – risking making it higher than your audience can handle!

A friend of mine has just sent me a copy of a report she’s received from her vet about her dog. Why me?  I don’t even like dogs!  Because on of my children is a doctor and could translate from the too-technical-to-understand language of the vet to the needed-language of the dog’s owner. With huge thanks to my daughter for doing the translation for someone she doesn’t even know, it’s pretty clear that if my friend (who isn’t an idiot!) couldn’t understand the written report there wasn’t a chance at all of her understanding as it was reported to her at the vet.

There’s a question of why people do this. I’m going to step away from the research for a moment to give you my impression here, but basically it boils down to:

  • presenters forget they’re not talking to other people who are so steeped in the jargon that the jargon doesn’t increase cognitive load
  • presenters know damn well they are making things difficult for their audience and are doing it on purpose to make themselves look smarter.

No prizes for guessing which of the two I think the vet was 😉

If you’re doing it because you’ve forgotten…
… then you’re a muppet. Nothing makes the audience lose trust in your content faster than not being able to understand that content. Perhaps more importantly, however, if they can’t understand it, they’re much less likely to apply it. If you’re making a presentation to change behaviour that behaviour is much less likely to happen if your cognitive load is too high: people simply can’t apply what they struggle to understand and remember.

If you’re doing it to make yourself look smarter...
… then you’re an idiot. Frankly I’m struggling to want to help you here 😉

Okay, okay… here goes. The research is clear: if you make things easier to understand more people understand you (great)  they also think you’re smarter. Yes, you heard me. If you communicated more simply you’re regarded as smarter. (Now how silly do you feel for all the times you used a thesaurus to beef up how ‘academic’ your essays sounded at university?!)

The killer question, of course, is how you minimise your presentation’s unnecessary cognitive load?

I’ve put together a few of the ones I know which are most easy to implement.

Cut the jargon. Seriously. Unless you’d get laughed at for not using it, cut it. Okay, so my PhD was looking at the causes of Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia in children and we all called A L L for the obvious reasons when we talked to each other, but imagine how that would feel to an audience of funders who weren’t medical researchers, for example. The only way I’ve found that’s (almost) sure to work here is to create your presentation and then when you rehearse it, do so with someone there who has no idea at all about your area of expertise. Have them go over each and every phrase they don’t understand: you might decide to keep it, but at least it’s now a conscious choice rather than an accident.

Use cartoons and sketches.  You may have spent a lot of time and effort to get those pictures of your fantastic (and fantastically complicated) widget but real life is messy. A simple sketch is less messy. By all means show a photograph after people have ‘got it’ but let them ‘get it’ with a simplified sketch first. This one is huge: just cast your mind back to your school days and think how the (good) text books were created… sketches, then labelled photographs of clear examples and then complicated examples. It’s not that people can’t get the complicated stuff, they just can’t get it in one go.

Give real life examples. Once your audience has got a grip on your ideas, few things firm it up than a clear example. You might need to clean up the example a bit first, of course, to take out all the messy real world bits. A model could also count as an example here, by the way, as models have to simplify things quite a bit. It helps if the examples you use are relevant to the audience, too. (Personally I find they don’t want to be too immediately relevant, so that people can’t get hooked up on the tiny details of the example.)

Reveal things gradually. An example will help most here. I once spent some time working with some architects who were tendering for a swimming pool and they’ had a computer-based, 3D image of all the water flows (pipes, to you and me) for the whole building. If they showed that image right off the bat, no one could understand a thing. However, when they first showed the flows for the pool, then faded them to pale grey and then added the flows for the showers… and then for the taps… you get the idea….

Revise and take breaks. Your audience needs time to assimilate new learning. Going back to things and giving them breaks when their subconscious can sort through the new stuff is helpful.  I know it’s not elegant and makes you look like you’re not organised, but which would you rather be – right-and-effective or thought-to-be-right-and-effective?

Use signposts. Obviously I don’t mean real signposts 😉   I mean metaphorical signposts so that people know where they are in your presentation. That way, all they have to concentrate on is the content, not figuring out where the content lies in the Grand Scheme Of Things. A black slide at the end of section, for example, is a great too: try heading slides at the start of the next section too. Consider putting a repeating slide in, with your agenda on it, so that people can see how you’re doing compared to your end/target.

Is that all? No more tools for reducing cognitive load in presentations?

Lordy no!  But this post is already one and a half thousand words long!  🙂

How about you – what tools do you use to keep the “extraneous cognitive load” down (other that avoid phrases like “extraneous cognitive load” 😉

Simon says...

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