Make people understand anything in 3 simple steps

Cognitive load explains how we process information

Have you ever watched a presentation filled with so much information that you feel overwhelmed?

You’re not alone.

Information overload is a big factor in poor presentations and communications.

How can we fix this?

Manage cognitive load.

Cognitive Load

In the late 1980s, John Sweller’s study of problem solving led him to discover that how we present information affects our ability to retain it.

Even the smartest person can only process so much information at a time.

The more information you have to process, the heavier the cognitive load.

This can hold back your ability to learn and others to learn from you.

Cognitive load theory divides a person’s working memory (similar to short-term memory) into 3 distinct areas:

  • Intrinsic load

  • Extraneous load

  • Germane load

Intrinsic - how difficult the problem is

Intrinsic load refers to a topic’s complexity, no matter how it’s presented.

It is generally fixed.

The problem itself doesn’t change.

Example: your boss asks you which skills senior leaders should develop next.

You’d need to understand what skills they currently have, emerging trends affecting the company, the business strategy and more.

Goal: simplify

Manage intrinsic load using sequencing and chunking.

Sequencing presents related concepts in an order.

  • Example: map senior leaders’ current skills before discussing what future skills they need

  • Caveat: sequencing only works with certain types of content

Chunking breaks down a problem into manageable pieces.

  • Example: divide senior leaders into groups by years of experience or business unit

  • Caveat: avoid chunking content too much; you don’t want to lose connections between chunks

Simplify where you can to better manage intrinsic load.

Extraneous - what you can remove

Extraneous load has very little to do with learning.

It deals with how information is presented.

Most negative learning experiences are due to poor information presentation, not the topic.

Good news: you can control extraneous cognitive load.

Goal: reduce

Cut extraneous cognitive load by avoiding split attention and redundancy.

Imagine seeing this slide in a presentation:

Split attention happens when your brain tries to process many things at once.

The most common example is when a speaker talks about something different than the words on a slide.

You end up hearing and reading different things.

How do you overcome split attention?

Silence is one way.

If I presented the text-heavy slide above, I’d say:

“Spend 30 seconds and read this to yourself”

This works because I’m not talking while they’re reading.

Redundancy happens when information is presented in many formats at the same time.

The #1 redundancy issue?

Replacing yourself with your slides.

It’s redundant if I read my text-heavy slide out loud, word for word.

You end up hearing and reading the same thing.

How do you avoid redundancy?

Use key phrases and images.

The rest you can say verbally.

Here’s the same slide revised to include only the key message.

Avoid both redundancy and split attention to sound smarter.

Germane - what to focus on

The “good” cognitive load is germane.

It deals with turning information into schemas.

Schemas are mental structures we make to understand how things work.

We use it to organize knowledge.

Goal: maximize

Germane load is where you want people to spend their learning energy on.

One good way is to connect new information with past experiences.

You can do this with a worked example, which shows something that’s already been solved.

To upskill senior leaders, show each step you used to train new hires.

Highlight similarities and differences between the two.

Maximize learning effort by linking new info with past work.

Key takeaways

Cognitive load applies to how we present information, how we persuade others, how we teach, how we learn and much more.

Apply these 3 steps to get your point across clearly:

  1. Simplify by sequencing and chunking (intrinsic load)

  2. Reduce split attention and redundancy (extraneous load)

  3. Maximize learning effort with worked examples (germane load)

Thanks for reading.

See you next week.