By: Brad Kelly, NBI Staff
Wednesday, November 9, 2022
How to NOT Overload Your Audience During Your Next CLE Presentation
Think of the last time you attended a lecture, listened to your boss talk in a meeting, or watched a colleague give a presentation. How much information could you recall after the fact? Could you give a moment-by-moment synopsis of each moment in the lecture or meeting? You probably couldn’t.
Beyond that, how many times did your mind wander despite your best efforts? Perhaps you started thinking about the errands you had to run after work. Maybe you started thinking about the work that wasn’t getting done because you had to get a few more CLE credits before the deadline. No matter if the presentation was the best one you had ever seen, your mind still traveled elsewhere despite your best efforts.
Our brains are fickle organs. They can only hold so much information at once. When you listen to someone else speak, their words are competing for your subconscious attention. Like it or not, you are probably thinking of your grocery list, or your kids’ after-school activities, or something else completely unrelated to the discussion, no matter how hard you try to pay attention.
According to cognitive load theory, our working, or short-term, memories can only hold around seven pieces of information at once. When you give a presentation, speak at a CLE event, or do anything that relies on holding the attention of an audience, your goal is to break through the noise in your audience’s brains and ensure as much of your presentation as possible occupies those seven objects of short-term memory. Not only that, you have to get your audience to commit that information to their long-term memories.
Sounds simple, right? Not always, but it’s easier than you think. This article has some techniques you can use to smooth the path. First, we need to discuss how the brain processes information.
How Our Brains Process Information
Our brains process and retain information utilizing a 3-step process. When we pick up on spoken words, pictures, sounds, or anything else, this information is first processed and filtered through our sensory memory. The pieces of information that don’t get filtered out go into our working, or short-term, memory. Pieces of information that aren’t forgotten by our short-term memory get stored in our long-term memory.
Our sensory memory is simply what our senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch perceive. It’s best to think of sensory memories as raw data. These memories are reflexive, involuntary and short. An example of sensory memory is our brain forming syllables into words, and words into sentences.
Working memory is our short-term memory. It can hold around seven pieces of information at a time, though this varies based on the complexity of the information. These pieces of information can consist of things that get filtered through our sensory memory. They can also consist of random thoughts that get triggered by our sensory memories and pop into our heads. These pieces of information are either processed into long-term memories, or else they are forgotten.
Remember when you found out you passed the bar exam, or when you gave your first deposition? These are long-term memories. Things that are memorable enough to make it through or working memory end up here. When you studied for the bar exam, you probably used repetition in the form of flashcards or notes to transfer the information you needed from your short-term memory to your long-term memory. Our brain's capacity for long-term memories is limitless.
As instructors at CLE events your job is to facilitate the transfer of information from your learners’ short-term memory to their long-term memory. This is where cognitive load theory comes into play.
What is Cognitive Load Theory?
Cognitive load theory states that since our working, or short-term, memories are limited (remember – around 7 pieces of information), instructors need to avoid overloading it. This limits what gets transferred to our long-term memories. It was developed by educational psychologist John Sweller back in the 1980’s.
When planning a CLE presentation, odds are you want to cram as much into your allotted presentation time as possible. Perhaps you are passionate about your topic. Maybe you are worried about filling the allotted time. No matter the reason, this may not be the best approach.
Cognitive load theory posits that imputing too much information into a learner’s short-term memory will cause them to forget things. Overloading short-term memory also prohibits the transfer of information to long-term memory. This not only leads to your audience being confused, but it also leads to them being dissatisfied with your presentation.
While all this may sound intimidating, crafting a CLE presentation that allows your audience to retain information is easy to do. If you understand a few basic techniques, it should take little additional preparation time.
Easy CLE Instructional Techniques to Help Retention
Here are some techniques you can use to ensure you give a memorable CLE presentation that leads to knowledge transfer and audience satisfaction. You’re probably already doing at least some of these things, if not all of them. Nonetheless, reviewing them, with an understanding of how your audience’s minds retain information, never hurts.
Hold Your Learners’ Attention
As stated previously, our brains can only hold around seven pieces of information in our short-term memory. You are competing for real estate in your audience’s brains. Remote learning has made this more difficult since audience members now effectively control their own learning environment. If they are in their office while they take your course, colleagues may pop in and ask them questions. They may also be fielding emails while they listen to you.
One simple thing you can do to hold your learners’ attention is to do things to appeal to visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners in your presentation. This was discussed in-depth in a recent NBI blog post.
Start at the Beginning
Imagine you are giving a basic-level presentation on special needs trusts. You ask your audience to think about strategies to qualify beneficiaries for Medicaid while also defining how a special needs trust works Because you are asking your audience to perform a task (thinking about strategies) by filtering information through something that only exists in their short-term memory (how special needs trusts work), you have just overloaded their short-term memories.
The best instructional strategy in the example above would have been to start with how special needs trusts work, summarize it briefly, then move onto the strategies. When giving a CLE presentation, ensure your beginning point is the most basic part of a task, concept, etc. You can then proceed onto more difficult concepts that build off it.
Be sure to review the agenda well before your presentation. If tasks, steps, etc. seem out of order, let NBI know. If you give us sufficient notice, we will work with you to make changes.
Spend More Time on the Hard Things
When budgeting your time, look through the agenda and determine which topics are the most difficult for the audience to understand. More difficult concepts require more of our short-term memory to process. When discussing truly advanced concepts, those seven pieces of information we can hold may go down to four or even five. Your learners still have the same outside distractions. The only thing you can control is how much information YOU relay.
The Importance of Repetition and Summarization
Repetition helps your audience transfer information from their short-term memory to their long-term memory. While going overboard with repetition can be distracting, some repetition goes a long way toward making your presentation truly memorable.
One simple yet effective way to build repetition into your presentation is to summarize information at the end of each subtopic before moving onto the next thing. Going back to our special needs trust example, if your first agenda subtopic is to describe what a special needs trust is, be sure to summarize what you said about this before moving onto the next topic.
At the end of your presentation, summarize everything you discussed on one brief PowerPoint slide. This will help your audience transfer information to their long-term memories. It will also make your presentation more memorable and help cement your reputation as a subject matter expert.
Staying on Target
Stories and personal anecdotes are excellent ways to ensure your message occupies as much of your audience’s short-term memories as possible. They are also excellent ways to ensure knowledge transfer to long-term memory and subsequent recall of information you present. If they aid your message, you should use them.
Though stories and anecdotes are highly effective training tools, care must be taken in their use. It can be easy to go off message, and to discuss things that may not effectively reenforce your topic. It’s best to select the stories you use beforehand.
If you go off-topic, you are filling your audience’s short-term memories with non-essential information that competes for space with your intended message. Effectively chosen anecdotes ensure your audience remembers your message. Poorly chosen ones help them to forget it.
To wrap up, these things help your audience transfer information to their long-term memories:
- Holding your learners’ attention by appealing to multiple learning styles.
- Ensuring your presentation starts with the easiest topic or part of a task.
- Allocating more time to harder topics and strategizing this before you present.
- Effective repetition and summarization of key points, both during your presentation and at the end of it.
- Ensuring your presentation stays on topic, and that stories and anecdotes support your message.
You are probably doing most, if not all, of these things. Nonetheless, it is good to keep them in mind for your next CLE presentation.
We’re National Business Institute, and our passion is Continuing Legal Education! We have been providing quality training to attorneys, accountants, HR professionals, teachers and others since 1983. In the transition to online training, NBI has remained an industry leader. We offer numerous online formats, as well as subscription options for individuals and for legal teams.
Brad Kelly has extensive experience working as an instructional designer in several compliance-driven industries – including the legal industry. Prior to this, he was a teacher. As NBI’s Content Strategist, he is passionate about providing knowledge the legal community needs to make informed decisions about training solutions.