How to reduce cognitive load in PowerPoint presentations


To make your presentation truly memorable you need to consider the limits of working memory and ways to reduce cognitive load. Most people don’t appreciate how little our working memory can handle at any one time. Let alone recall it later. So it doesn’t matter how charismatic and entertaining you are whilst presenting, if you overload the brains of your audience, they simply won’t remember it all.

Here are 4 ways on “How to reduce cognitive load in PowerPoint”

Build your presentation around your key messages

This often gets overlooked. When designing your PowerPoint presentation think about what you want the audience to take away with them. What exactly are your key messages (think in 3s)? If you aren’t sure, I like to ask a presenter what they would need to get across if they only had 1 minute. A bit like an elevator pitch. Think of 3 essential things and make sure these points are explained simply without any extraneous “noise”.

It’s also worth including a menu at the start of the presentation and obviously reducing the text on your slides as much as possible. If you are presenting live you do not need to have every word on the screen – your slides should be a visual aid.

Reduce the complexity of your content

One consideration is the complexity of your content. Is your subject matter difficult to explain and therefore difficult to learn and remember? As a presenter it is your job to keep your message simple in order to keep your content memorable. This may mean that you are required to break down more complex information into smaller, simpler parts. Similarly, with charts and diagrams, break them down into smaller pieces and use animation and slide transitions to accentuate how everything comes together. Highlighting key numbers is also a nice technique to direct attention.

Clear the visual junk to reduce cognitive load

The human brain prefers spatial, visual learning and it has been shown that people have 6x better recall when both verbal and visual channels are used together. Avoid extraneous data overload and make it easier for yourself – do not try to describe what can be visualised. Compare these two pie charts, created using the same data. The aim is to highlight the sales on a Friday compared to the rest of the week:

Reduce cognitive load - chart example

The chart on the left requires the audience to work harder. They must refer to the legend to figure out what’s what. That’s a lot of eye travel. Whereas the chart on the right tells an instant story. The amount of “junk” on the chart has been minimized and the Saturday to Thursday information combined to emphasise the key point.

Use imagery to help recall

In terms of imagery, the “spatial contiguity principle” proves that learning improves when words are placed near relevant pictures. In other words, using graphics to support your text prompts learning. Just make sure your choice of visuals is in sync with your key message. Imagery should “connect the dots” for your audience, so that they can understand more quickly what you’re presenting to them.

As you put your PowerPoint presentation together keep in mind the limits of human working memory – in other words, work to reduce cognitive load. If you aim for simplicity your information will be remembered.

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