Has this ever happened to you?
You spend a week building a presentation full of marketing insights. You present the presentation. It seems like your audience is paying attention. (Maybe, like a boss, you used data storytelling to engage them.)
Fast-forward three days, and then someone from your audience asks a question that you clearly answered during your presentation.
Is it possible that your audience consisted of nothing but morons and amnesiacs? Maybe!
But, in fairness, you might just be running up against the reality of cognitive overload. It’s a theory that explains how human beings absorb, process and ultimately remember information.
How Cognitive Load Theory Works (In Theory)
First, you take in information, usually through your eyesight or hearing, and it’s placed into your sensory memory.
If you pay attention to that information, it moves to your short-term working memory, where it’s processed and organized.
Then that information moves into your long-term memory, where it can be accessed for years to come.
Sounds foolproof, right?
Three Types of Cognitive Load
Unfortunately, there’s a weak spot: Your working memory can process only so much information — handle so much cognitive load — at any one time.
There are three main types of cognitive load:
- Intrinsic load is the inherent, innate difficulty of learning a piece of information. Learning algebra is harder than learning addition.
- Extraneous (or extrinsic) load is how the information is presented. You could describe a triangle to someone simply using words. But it’ll probably be easier if you just show them a picture.
- Germane load is the good kind of cognitive load. It’s the mental effort that occurs when you actively engage with the information. Like the problems you would work in math class, reinforcing that day’s lesson.
How to Use Cognitive Load Theory
Brent Dykes, the author of “Effective Data Storytelling,” says the key to a successful presentation is to …
- Manage intrinsic load by understanding the inherent difficulty of the information being presented and not throwing too much at the audience at once.
- Minimize extraneous load by removing or downplaying any elements that interfere with the learning process.
- Maximize germane load by creating opportunities for your audience to engage with the information — for example, by including exercises or quizzes.
A good first step is to make sure your presentation is built around one core insight. What’s the one thing that you want your audience to remember and do?
One Marketing Insight to Rule Them All
Try using the ABT Framework to write out your insight. ABT stands for And, But and Therefore. You can use those three words to combine the essential elements of an insight into just one or two sentences.
(The ABT Framework was developed by Randy Olson, a scientist and filmmaker — check out his book, “Houston, We Have a Narrative.”)
First, you set up your story.
We need to trim our budget, AND trade shows are our least efficient marketing channel.
Then you introduce the problem.
BUT the XYZ Trade Show is our single most cost-effective program. Cutting it could shrink revenue by $400,000.
Which lets you recommend a solution.
THEREFORE, we should cut trade show spending, but continue investing in the XYZ Show.
Everything you want your audience to know is distilled to one easy-to-remember passage.
Will this magically solve all your audience’s memory problems? Probably not. But understanding and managing cognitive load is one more technique, like data storytelling, that can increase the odds that your insights break through with your audience.
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