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Are your slides causing high cognitive load?

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If you’ve ever experienced ‘Death by PowerPoint’ then you’ll know what a dull slide deck looks like. Sitting through a presentation of slide after slide of tightly packed bullet points can quickly send you off to sleep, all because it’s vastly increasing your cognitive load.

Cognitive load is the mental effort required to process new information. If you have a high cognitive load, it can lead to reduced comprehension and retention of information.

What is cognitive load?

Cognitive load refers to the total amount of mental effort being used in our working memory.

Our working memory has limited capacity, and when it is overloaded, it becomes challenging to process new information effectively. High cognitive load can lead to confusion, reduced comprehension, and decreased retention of information. This is what can cause ‘Death by PowerPoint’.

In other words, lots of information on a screen is too much for our brains to process, and we switch off.

How slides affect cognitive load

Every single item you choose to add to your slides increases cognitive load, from the number of words you use to pictures, graphics, fonts, graphs and charts. Even elements such as extra data points on graphs can add to your cognitive load. The increased mental effort to decipher and understand the information is overwhelming and can hinder comprehension, diminish engagement, and impede learning.

The more visual elements you add, however insignificant they may appear, the more difficult it is for people’s brains to process. And if it’s too much effort for our brains, we are more likely to switch off.

The design and content of slides is crucial in ensuring that they effectively support, rather than hinder, the audience’s cognitive processing and understanding of the information.

Here are some of the ways in which poorly designed slides can increase cognitive load:

1. Overloading slides with text

Slides that are crowded with too much text can overwhelm the audience’s working memory, making it difficult to process and retain the information. If your slide is a series of sentences separated by bullet points, the cognitive load will be really hight.

2. Reading vs. listening

When the audience is busy reading text-heavy slides, they are more likely to miss out on what the presenter is saying, leading to divided attention and increased cognitive load.

3. Confusing or unfocussed slides

If the information presented is incongruent with the message, it can cause audiences to struggle. Without proper visual cues, the audience may have difficulty in focussing on the most important information, resulting in increased mental effort to understand the content.

4. Inconsistent design elements

Inconsistent design elements such as use of colours and fonts can feel confusing and effortful to follow. This can distract the audience from the content, increasing cognitive load. It can become difficult for audience’s brains to organise and process the information presented.

5. Poor slide transitions and animations

It may be tempting to add flashy animations and transitions between slides. However, these can distract the audience, making it harder to understand and prioritise the content.

6. Lack of relevance and clarity

If your slides don’t match what you are talking about, it can feel confusing to our brains. This can also occur if you’re showing a slide before you start talking about the information, or leave a slide up that’s no longer relevant to what you’re saying. Slides that lack relevance and clarity make it difficult for the audience to connect and integrate new information with their existing knowledge, leading to increased cognitive load.

How to improve your slide deck

Visual aids, when used correctly, can help reduce cognitive load by providing a visual representation of the information being presented. They can make complex ideas easier to understand, enhance comprehension, and improve retention.

So how can you lessen your audience’s cognitive load and make better slides?

Simplicity is key.

1. Limit text

Avoid overcrowding your slides with too much text. Cut out anything that you don’t absolutely need – and yes, this includes titles! If you absolutely need text, use short and concise sentences to convey your main ideas.

2. Choose images over text wherever possible

Choose relevant and high-quality images to complement your text. Avoid using clip art or fuzzy and low-resolution images that can be distracting. Using strong visuals can make your presentations up to 550% more memorable than ones using bullet points alone!

3. Use consistent design elements

Stick to a consistent colour scheme throughout your presentation to create a cohesive look. Not only will it help your brand recognition, but it also helps audiences to follow. Also, think about the font you’re using – is it clear and easy to read? Using consistent font sizes and styles across all slides will also help to reduce cognitive load.

4. Use builds to reveal information slowly

You can help to reduce cognitive load by revealing information bit by bit. Only show what you’re going to be talking about at that time and give your audience time to process it before brining on the next piece of information. This is easier and much less tiring to follow.

5. Use animations and transitions sparingly

Keep a clean feel to your slide deck with minimal animations and transitions. This will help your slides to feel much more slick and will help to keep people focussed on the key information.

6. Rethink your graphs and charts

Graphs and charts can be big contributors to a high cognitive load. Cutting out some visual elements can help to lower the mental processing power needed to understand this type of information. You can easily remove elements like backgrounds, lines or dots without compromising the data itself.  

The final check

Cut, cut, cut

When you’ve got your slide deck together, go back through and see what you can afford to cut out. Only keep what is absolutely essential to your audience’s comprehension. Can you cut the text any further to get rid of superfluous or repetitive words? If you’re using charts or graphs, get rid of any unnecessary borders, grid lines, backgrounds or information. If in doubt, ask a colleague what they think you can afford to cut!

Test Your Slides

Got your slide deck together? Test it out. Play your slides through – on a big screen if possible – and check that any transitions display correctly and aren’t distracting and that image resolution is the highest possible quality. Review and revise your slides to ensure clarity and coherence.

Get help with your slide decks

It is crucial to design slides thoughtfully and effectively to support and enhance the audience’s learning experience, rather than hinder it. By following best practices in slide design and keeping the audience’s cognitive load in mind, presenters can create more engaging, informative, and memorable presentations.

Remember, the goal of visual aids is to support and complement your presentation, not to replace it. Keep your audience’s cognitive load in mind and strive to create visual aids that enhance understanding and engagement.

If you’d like support in designing visual aids to support your presentations, we’d love to help you to prepare! Get in touch with our team today to find out more.

See also:

How to run effective hybrid meetings

Five ways to improve your video calls