How to avoid cognitive fail!


Communication coach Jon Torrens shows how important it is not to overload your audience with information when making a presentation (clue: it's very important).


Jon writes:

Here’s a typical presentation (with a witty, scathing commentary):

“Hi, my name’s David and I’m going to talk to you about . Here’s a slide with that information.”

OK, so far so good. This information is vital, and it’s the start of the presentation, so my focus isn’t 100%. I have the name and the subject, and I need that so I can talk to people about it afterwards.

“Here’s a list of my achievements.”

Seriously? You want to convince us that you’re worth listening to? We’ve granted you that honour by sitting here and listening. What you should be doing is getting into the material. Right now, please.

“Here’s an overview of all the things I’m going to cover.”

Oh bugger. There’s too much information to take in easily, and like everyone else, I’m reading faster than you’re speaking, so I’m desperately trying to block out your speech so I can take in all the visual information. This mismatch means at only thirty seconds in we’ve already hit COGNITIVE FAIL. This list’s daunting quantity adds more pessimism. What you should have done is got started with the material. Remember?

“Here’s some background on...”

Angels and ministers of grace, defend us! Please start the actual substance. I’m guessing/hoping that near the end of this presentation will be a marvellous, sparkling revelation, a fascinating development, the high point of the piece. Why didn’t you start with that?

“Right, so now I’m going to start on...”

Finally. The past ten minutes were a waste of my time while we waited for you to start. You appear to know a lot about your subject but nothing about how to convey it. Perhaps this was the way things should be done in the 1950s, but now we know that you don’t need to be formal. It’s not impolite to get grab your audience with the good stuff, but actually more efficient and effective. I know little about your subject but I would engage the audience ten times better than you because I have an awareness of how to. Being an expert simply isn’t enough if you’re unable to communicate your information and ideas in a way that sticks.

Now, if you’ve read this far without departing in disgust at my lack of respect for academics, consider these ideas:

  • Empathy with your audience is vital to engage them. Respect who they are and what they want.
  • Parachute in, cut to the chase, start immediately with an involving scene from your story.
  • You don’t have a story? The oldest and most effective way to interest your audience and you thought you’d just ignore it? Brilliant.

There is a simple formula to conveying your information to the people in front of you, and it’s based on people. Try understanding them as much as your subject or you’re going to present something as dusty and ineffective as those text books from your youth.



By reducing stress and fear, I make giving talks enjoyable.

Using my experience as an introvert, stand-up comic and video games designer, I deliver short, fun but effective training to create successful, confident speakers. I work with both companies and individuals.

I currently deliver training online and in person.

Jon Torrens