The Cognitive Load Theory and Your Presentations

Have you heard of the Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) and how to apply it in your presentations? Developed by the educational psychologist John Sweller in the late 1980s. Describing the obstacles our memory faces when it comes to holding on to pieces of old information and trying to process a new such. Furthermore, the CLT is fundamental for each speaker who is aiming at creating memorable presentations.

There are three types of cognitive load according to Sweller:

  • Intrinsic cognitive load — This one is all about how complicated the new information that is being presented is. For example, if you are presenting something that your audience hasn’t seen up until now, understand that this requires additional effort from their end. That’s why you want to keep it simple by using simple examples and words. Even more, chunk the information on smaller pieces. To put into context, imagine a slide where you have to present a few things that are all new to the audience. Instead of you showing them all at once, you will help them tremendously if you animate them and show them one by one.
  • Extraneous cognitive load — here it’s all about how the information that you are presenting is being visualized and presented. Humans are visual creatures so create effective slides (scan our portfolio for inspiration). Less text, more visuals that are not just visuals but such that support your message. The simpler, the better.
  • Germane cognitive load — you may have heard that according to Malcolm Gladwell it takes 10 000 hours to master a skill. Building those internal connections in your brain so that you master a skill is the germane load. What does that mean for you as a speaker? Your content has to be as simple as possible. However, your audience should “connect the dots” with their previous knowledge and learnings. What does that mean? If you have researched them well — described in our Storytelling course, you can present your new ideas with examples they can easily understand and relate to. Don’t ask them to waste energy on trying to figure out what exactly you mean. They should easily understand when you present a specific point or idea. That’s how it should go.

In conclusion and if you really think about it, the Cognitive Load Theory is saying to all of us as presenters and speakers: “Hey! Keep it simple and your message will be remembered”!




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