3 Cognitive Design Principles To Create Effective Presentations

Preparing for your next pitch or sales presentation? Here's how to create compelling and persuasive presentations that capture the interest of your audience.

Every client you pitch (and audience you address) is unique. You pitch to people with individual characters, histories, and motivations. When you create a presentation it’s important to take those differences into account. Effective presentations are tailored to the unique attributes of your audience.

But I don’t want to talk about the differences between people here. I want to talk about creating presentations that appeal to every member of your audience as a human being with a brain and senses.

Now, people’s brains do differ: attention, memory, and personality traits are variable. But cognitive psychology and its descendant, cognitive design, have discovered general principles that we can use to build persuasive, interesting, and compelling presentations that don’t squander the attention of our audience.


Patterns matter

As humans, we’re incredible at spotting patterns. The human brain is the most sophisticated natural pattern recognition tool in the universe. We make creative use of patterns everywhere. Poetry, music, dance, typography, fashion, logic, board games, architecture, and more are all about making and breaking patterns.

For example, the Law of Prägnanz “states that the human brain tends to process simple patterns—patterns that are regular, even, and orderly—faster than patterns that are more complex.”

One of the simplest ways to exploit patterns in your presentations is foreshadowing: planting the seeds of what’s to come. We’re all familiar with foreshadowing in the movies: if a character tells a seemingly irrelevant story or the camera lingers on an irrelevant object, none of us are surprised when, later in the movie, that story or object become important.


Photo: Micael Sáez, Unsplash
Photo: Micael Sáez, YFS Magazine

When building your presentation, include elements that foreshadow what is to come. It can be as simple as an introduction that explicitly rehearses your topics, or a more subtle use of themes and visual cues that will be alluded to in later slides.

The goal is to create a presentation that seems like a unified and organic whole, rather than a disparate collection of unrelated information.

In contrast, it can be useful to establish a pattern throughout your presentation just so you can break it. For instance, introducing new and unexpected colors on an important slide will focus attention exactly where you want it.


Share stories

Our minds are tuned to the interpretation of stories, especially stories that involve people. Narratives empower us to convey information concisely and communicate complex causal relationships without confusing the audience.

I often think of sales presentations as a three-act drama. The first act describes the current situation and demonstrates the problem. The second act introduces our hero (or product) and shows how it can help the lead overcome their problem, and the final act shows the outcome – the world as it will be when the problem is solved.

Learning how narratives are constructed will strengthen your presentations and help make them more memorable.


Manage cognitive load

Human working memory is capable of keeping track of between three and five items at any one time. If you deliver information in a way that pushes the limits of working memory, your audience may become confused and frustrated. Eventually they’ll stop listening.

Avoid bombarding your audience with large amounts of simultaneous information or moving quickly from one set of facts to another. Given the choice between experiencing high cognitive load and zoning out, most people choose the latter.


Photo: Rawpixel, Unsplash
Photo: Rawpixel, YFS Magazine

Effective visualizations are an important tool in reducing cognitive load. Visualizations and charts exploit our visual processing abilities, and make it possible to meaningfully encapsulate a large amount of information that would simply be ignored if presented in its raw form.


By establishing and subverting patterns, crafting narratives, and managing cognitive load, you can create compelling and persuasive presentations that capture the interest of your audience.


Angelica Cifuentes, a Senior Designer at Quicksilver Studios, has been proudly creating dynamic and interactive designs for fortune 500 clients. When she is not planning her next international adventure you can find her raising the cutest dog in Chicago, a Yorkie named Oliver.


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