How to present and hide the right information

at the right time

Fifteen years ago when I was in grad school, a classmate and I had a million dollar idea. We created a Q&A website for high school students. They could get answers about college from independent college counselors.

We called it admssns (a play on the word admissions).

The site was similar to Quora, Stack Overflow and other Q&A websites, but focused on college admissions.

We spent tens of thousands of dollars of our own money and nearly a year to develop the site. We were that confident it would work.

Nobody wants to go to an empty Q&A site. So our final step was getting users to fill out their profiles and ask/answer some questions.

But we couldn’t get enough information on the site.

Clutter = cognitive load

We thought it made more sense to have users first spend 15 minutes and enter all of their profile information (school, major, extracurricular activities, etc). That way, they wouldn’t have to do it again.

But it was cognitive overload. Asking for or presenting too much detailed information at once turns people off. And they don’t come back.

We had too much clutter and needed to redesign how we onboarded users.

Progressive disclosure

The point of the story is not about how to design websites. Rather, it’s about how to present information to people.

One of the best ways to do this is by gradually revealing information as it becomes relevant to your audience.

This is called progressive disclosure.

Why you should use progressive disclosure

Presenters often have a dilemma. Their audience wants to see everything. But they also want simplicity.

How do you balance both? A few ways:

All of these help people process information without being overwhelmed with everything all at once.

The great news is that you often don’t need to change any of your content. You just need to gradually reveal it to your audience.

When to use progressive disclosure

Think about the presentations you give. How much text is on each slide? What’s on the screen when you are talking?

Use progressive disclosure to your advantage with these tips:


If you have something that goes in linear order, show each step one at a time. Never get ahead of yourself and show everything at once. This is also known as staged disclosure.

Complex tasks

Not everything can be put simply. And that’s fine. Break complex things into more manageable chunks and go through each chunk separately. This also helps people remember distinct parts of your presentation.


Create an appendix with extra slides. These slides may have more details about something you didn’t have time to talk about during your presentation. Only show those slides if someone asks about it.


You may need to highlight something specific on a busy slide. Consider drawing a box around it in a bright, contrasting color. This directs attention to that area.

Use progressive disclosure to make sure you and your presentation are going at the same pace. It’s one of the simplest things you can do to present better and sound smarter.

Thanks for reading.

See you next week,