You have likely witnessed your share of mediocre presentations, where the slides were full of text and bad graphs. You probably tuned out periodically, checked your email, and eventually stopped paying attention altogether. (You may have also seen members of your audience do the same when you were speaking!) Our response to these kinds of presentations can be traced back to how our brains process information as we learn. By recognizing these processes, you can improve the way you present your content.

In my new book, Better Presentations: A Guide for Scholars, Researchers and Wonks, I explain how to create, design, and deliver effective presentations. Understanding how we learn and absorb information can be especially useful for presenters who want their audience to better understand and comprehend their message.

Two sets of theories are particularly useful for presenters who want their audience to better understand and comprehend their message. The first theory is Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) and the second is a set of learning principles developed by psychologist Richard Mayer and colleagues. I focus on CLT in this post and turn to Mayer’s learning principles next week.

Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) was initially developed by educational psychologist John Sweller in the late 1980s. CLT describes the burden placed on our working memory as we try to hold onto some piece of previous information and then try to process new information. In essence, according to CLT, we can only absorb so much information when it is shared or presented to us.

Sweller differentiates between three types of cognitive load:

  1. Intrinsic cognitive load is the cognitive load due to the underlying complexity of the information being presented. In other words, this is the amount of working memory dedicated to how complex is the information being presented. If you are presenting a new method or research process, for example—one that your audience may not have seen before—be aware of the extra load placed upon them by learning new, complicated information. So take it slowly and build to the complex ideas and features as if your audience is seeing it for the first time (which may be the case).
  2. Extraneous cognitive load is caused by the method by which information is presented. This might include such aids as visual images, redundancy, or multimedia devices. Cleaner, clearer, simpler slides that rely more on visuals and less on dense text can help reduce the extraneous cognitive load on your audience.
  3. Germane cognitive load relates to the construction and automation of schemas, the patterns or organization of thoughts or concepts (also known as “schemas”). As a presenter, you can provide your audience with a variety of examples that support your content, but do so in ways that enable your audience to easily perceive and understand your content instead of spending their energy trying to decipher the detailed text or dense table from the other side of the room.

At its essence, when applied to presentations Cognitive Load Theory suggests that the presenter should minimize the amount of extraneous stuff the audience needs to decipher. So as you prepare your next presentation, focus on delivering content that is rich in meaning, but simple to understand.


Want to learn more about presenting effectively? Pick up my new book Better Presentations: A Guide for Scholars, Researchers and Wonks, and check out the Better Presentations website where you can download PowerPoint files, icons, and learn more from a host of great resources.