Let’s talk load – cognitive load. You can pick up the origins and history of the idea here, but for now, let’s concentrate on how it applies to making business presentations. The key concept is that

  • the human brain has a limited capacity for processing information (while it’s listening to a presentation/communication such as teaching or presenting) 

Man with a heavy stone on his headIt’s exactly not rocket science so far! However, if you unpack the passing-on-information bit, Cognitive Load Theory posits that there are three elements to the mental effort your audience has to make when you present to them.

Firstly there’s Intrinsic Load. This is related to what you’re talking about and the amount of load is directly proportional to how hard the concepts are. (Advanced trigonometry has a higher Intrinsic Load than Eastenders.) To be honest, there’s not much you can do about the Intrinsic Load of something – except make sure that you pick something that’s got the right level of Intrinsic Load for your audience… there’s no point in explaining how a Black Hole works to people who don’t understand gravity! 😉

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Beware… because that said, far, far (farr!!!) too many presenters don’t even think about this, and instead rush into telling their audience what they know – without thinking for even a moment about whether it’s got the right level of load.


Second comes Extraneous Load – this is the load that a presenter puts on the audience (or which they create for themselves) because of how things are communicated or explained. If your audience is struggling to understand you because every second word is jargon (which they have to convert into something they understand…)… you’ve got a higher Extraneous Load. Bad explanations can make even simple ideas feel hard! Pretty clearly, your job as a presenter is to minimise the Extraneous Load.

You know this is true: just think about your favourite teacher from school – some teachers just made things ‘easy’.

Finally comes Germain Load. This is the process of assimilating information into a “schema” – or to put it another way, ‘learning it’. Think of a schema as putting lots of individual instructions into a box and labelling the box. When you know what you’re doing you no longer have to carry out the individual instructions, you just carry out ‘the box’. That’s great, for later on, but the process of filling the box costs you something – it doesn’t fill itself.  Complicated physical skills such as driving are a good example of when we use schemas – if you try and process everything you need to consciously you can easily get over-whelmed but once you’ve got the hang of it, you just tell you body ‘change gear’ and the rest of it happens without thinking about it… all the individual component parts of changing gear are handled for you.

Putting  thing in a way that your audience can relate to, or which builds on something they already know, can be a handy way of making it easier for them to build their schema.

Ultimately, people can use the material in your presentation more (and more easily) if your content has

  • an Intrinsic load which isn’t too high for their level of knowledge
  • an appropriately low level of Extraneous Load; and
  • an easy way of conversion to Schema (appropriate Germain Load).
[jcolumns]All clear? If so, here’s an exercise to help you design your next presentation. Think about what it is you need to say and get yourself a huge piece of paper (a sheet of flipchart would do nicely). Create yourself three columns and label them with the three different types of cognitive load and then, for each type of load, jot down all the different things you can do to help.

For example, in the column Germain Load you might jot down “Break into self contained chunks” and “Check people understand each part before going on to next”. In the column for Extrinsic Load your job is to minimise it, so jot down everything you can do to reduce that kind of load. Examples might include things like “Check my font is legible from the back” or “Replace all jargon”.

[jcol/] [jbox color=”blue”] Here’s a side note: one of the reasons many presenters over-complicate their presentations, or put too much information in them, is because they’ve been through the process of creating schemas. To them, it’s therefore easy but to their audience there’s still a lot of hard work to be done. To use a driving analogy, remember how much hard work it was to change gear when you were a new driver?  You couldn’t concentrate on anything else… and yet now you’re experienced, you can continue your conversation as you do so. Treat your audience like the novice driver!
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Okay…. now stop. Don’t try and fill in the third column just yet. Essentially, the third type of Cognitive Load – to do with how people can turn information into learning is harder than it looks, and you might want to come at it fresh. What’s more, it’s hard to get inside other people’s heads!

When you’re fresh, come back and have a go. Examples, of things we’ve put in ours are things like “Give ppl a break period with an exercise to figure out how to apply learning to their own work”. Okay, that’s pretty obvious, but you’ll be amazed at how often people get carried away with presenting, and forget that the whole point of a presentation isn’t the presentation itself – the point of a presentation is what people do with the a presentation after it’s finished.

All of this is, of course, easier to say than to do. Some things are obvious (for example, if you can give people a case study they identify with it helps them create a schema) but other things are less obvious. And some of them you can’t do anything about even if you know what you should be doing, of course. For example, having an accent that your audience finds difficult to understand will increase the Extraneous Load in your audience but you can’t remove your accent in your five minute warm-up before your presentation!

On the other hand you can make sure your lips and face are warmed-up, so your diction is as clear as possible!

Some things will make it worse, too. I just mentioned giving your audience a relevant case study – but if you give them a case study they can’t relate to it won’t do anything for the germain load, really – but it could conceivably increase their extraneous load, as people try and figure out what your story has to do with them!

As a personal example, I find that linking what I’m saying to popular mythical or fictional characters works.  I’ve even referenced Batman! Another popular trick is to use acronyms – patters can reduce germain load, for example – as can anything that creates a simple-to-grasp pattern.

So before your next presentation – justify each and every sentence, slide and image against the three parts of Cognitive Load. Of course, sometimes you’ll have to make compromises and no single slide can always be great at all three parts of the problem… but just trying will make you a better presenter.

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