Cognitive Load Theory Explained for Presentations

presentation design Mar 31, 2021

The best presenters respect their audiences. They showcase this level of respect by understanding one critical element: cognitive load theory. What is it?

Cognitive load theory (CLT) implies that our brains can only retain so much information. In other words, our working memory is limited and our brains do have a certain ceiling when presented with new information. The human brain need to time to digest and sort through the new material and when maxed it has officially hit its cognitive load. This load is made up of three demands: intrinsic, extraneous, and germane. Let's tackle each one separately.

The Intrinsic Load (Level of Difficulty)

Have you ever noticed that some content is easy to learn while other subject matter is difficult? For instance, learning a chord or two on the guitar may be easy but playing like Jimi Hendrix is difficult. That's because playing multiple notes while mixing in certain other elements like guitar pedals is a bit more complex. Hendrix's style of playing has a higher intrinsic load.

So, how does this apply to presentations. It is your responsibility as a presenter to keep your content as simple and as memorable as possible.

Presentation Design Tip

When working with text on your slides, get in the habit of breaking down your slides into more digestible pieces. For instance, I pulled this slide off the web.


By stretching out the material and removing the text and focusing on the key takeaways of "Did you know?" and the "1.5 billion," you get a far more engaging presentation. This approach is respecting the intrinsic load of cognitive load theory.


The Extraneous Load (How Information is Presented)

The extraneous load is a reflection of how you choose to showcase your information. You generally have two options: text or visuals. You need to opt for the latter. For instance, let's pretend you want to give a 45-minute lecture on circles. Keeping with the analogy above, you can either one, share the definition of a circle like so:


Or, you can choose to showcase it visually like this sample here:


This last sample is clearly easier to understand because it is visual and when choose to go visual with your information retention will increase by 42%.

Presentation Design Tip

In the same spirit of the intrinsic load, break out your content into a visual representation rather than text based description. For instance, you can choose to go text heavy with this slide:


Or you can choose to showcase the main points above visually.


You need to do the latter to respect the extraneous load of cognitive load theory.

The Germane Load (The Building Blocks)

I live in the south so you may think I go deer hunting. I don't but I'll go ahead and use this illustration as an example to discuss the germane load of cognitive load theory. Our brains are constructed by connections, processes, and building blocks. In other words, we like to connect the dots on new material in order to understand it. As a presenter, it is going to be in your best interest to connect those dots for your audience members. I'll give you an example using the deer hunting example. If I went deer hunting this past weekend, I can respect the germane load by stacking my information. I'll show you below

Presentation Design Tip

Make sure your choice of content and imagery connects the dots for your viewer. You can ensure this by opting for visual storytelling. In the case of this deer hunting example, my slide below has the words "deer" with an image of deer behind it. The text and image are the building blocks and it should be easy to recall that I went deer hunting.


Remember, the human brain can take in only so much information. Your audience does have a mental threshold and you must not cross it. Keep your content simple. Keep your visuals engaging. And, make sure to connect the dots on your main concepts. If you do these things, you are respecting cognitive load theory which means you are respecting your audience.

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