Use stories to avoid cognitive overload

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —April 5, 2007
Filed in Business storytelling

Have you ever had the experience of someone telling you something that’s quite interesting while also showing you something that’s quite interesting and you didn’t know where to focus? Should you look at the picture and understand it, or should you listen? Les Posen points to some new research that says this is a big problem with presentation software like PowerPoint and Keynote. Actually, Les doesn’t mention Keynote as a culprit because he loves Keynote, but I’m guessing you can make the same errors using any presentation software.

I understood the research to say that if we present two or more sources of information simultaneously we overload our audience’s minds and they get confused. I’m sure this is mainly the case when the speaker says one thing and the slide also has plenty of text to consume (probably saying the same thing). But I’m sure the problem exists is the information presented is rich and dense. It’s much less an issue, of course, if the slide just has a simple picture that didn’t require interpretation while the presenter spoke, but is there to evoke a feeling.

I witnessed a good example of how we can easily confuse our audience by overloading the audiences senses. Last weekend I attended the Narrative and Complexity workshop convened by David Boje and his colleagues in Las Vegas. As part of our time together we were invited to attend a presentation by one of David’s students. The PhD student presented a graph using PowerPoint that was complicated and took some time to understand. Unfortunately the graph was poorly labelled and while the student continued to present his ideas no one could concentrate on what he was saying. We were all stuck on the graph we didn’t understand. Eventually the audience became aggressive and attacked his presentation. Poor guy. It wasn’t a pretty sight.

I can understand why people provide lots of text on their slides. They believe they have some really important things to convey and they don’t want the audience to miss the key points (or should I say, the key notes and powerful points).  It looks like our logical, rational minds fails us here because in an attempt to ensure we convey our points, our audiences get confused and miss the point. Perhaps there is a narrative alternative.

Would you put text on slides if we were telling a story? For me it doesn’t make much sense. What would you write? You wouldn’t attempt to summarise the story because it would ruin it for everyone. Including stories helps you break the habit of having too much text on your slides. You could use a combination (in any order) of these presentation patterns to effectively communicate your ideas:

  • tell a story while showing a picture that evokes a feeling that supports the story
  • show a graph while telling them what the graph means
  • tell them ideas, concepts, opinions while showing simple graphics (like a single image covering the whole screen) that help them connect the ideas to a picture
  • hand out the detailed information at the end of the presentation so people can read the facts etc.

You can see an example of one of my presentations that uses this approach. 

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. Nimmy says:

    Apologies. My comment isn’t related to this particular post of yours. I have been pondering over something that I thought you’d be able to throw some light on. Would be cool to know your views on storytelling and the dangers of exaggeration. Thanks in anticipation.
    I’ve rambled a bit on this topic here –

  2. Brad says:

    The problem with PowerPoint presentations is often compounded by conference organisers requesting a “copy” of the presentation for the conference “notes”. The notes are given to attendees and are sometimes also sold to non-attendees. A presenter knows that the presentation will now be in print mode as well as displayed live. The tendency is to put text in the Powerpoint slides to give some meaningful content to satisfy the printed requirement.

  3. Hi Nimmy, exageration is rarely a problem in the way we use stories at Anecdote because we rarely look at a single story. By getting a group of people to work with lots of stories, extracting themes etc, exagerations are filtered out. Dave Snowden once told me that if you force people to tell the truth, they lie, and if you allow them to lie, they tell the truth. Regardless of any exageration, there is always an element of plausiblity, and if there isn’t then the organisation discards the story.

  4. Good point Brad. But why don’t people use the notes fields in powerpoint or provide an additional handout? A powerpoint presentation on its own rarely makes and sense.

  5. Nimmy says:

    Thanks for the insight, Shawn. I get the general point and ‘am led to believe that organizations will discard the untrue stories in the long run… I’ll come back in case there’s a specific situation/example that I want to bring to your notice! 🙂

  6. I’m trying to build a new model for our pitches using many of these principles. As i have discussed on my blog and here before we have used images very succesfully on several pitches and I am now trying to gather stories to help make the process “more emotional” for prospective clients. We’ve started by asking people to think of stories about themselves that we can use rather than the standard (boring)introductions. We are calling them Jackanory sessions after an old BBC kids show!

  7. Hi Scott, how to you help people remember their stories? I’ve found that timelines are helpful. The pictures idea is a good one.

  8. Hiya Shawn
    Thanks for the tip.
    What I was going to do was have an artist in the room to help “draw” the individual stories. Makes the production of the story fun, the outcome memorable and produces some marketing material – at least that’s what I hope will happen. Worth the investment just to see if it works!

  9. David Montgomery says:

    Shawn, as Nimmy noted “The problem with PowerPoint presentations is often compounded by conference organisers requesting a “copy” of the presentation for the conference “notes”. The notes are given to attendees and are sometimes also sold to non-attendees.” Consequently, all too often we sense an obligation to concentrate on content rather than message we wish to convey or questions we would like to pose.
    Regardless of the presentation software used I think an important consideration is the point made by Geoff Petty, albeit in a slightly different context, that “A lecture is an event where the notes of the lecturer become the notes of the student without passing through the brains of either.” A variety of methods works better.
    Storytelling is a valuable tool and a great way to help people understand and reframe messages within their own contexts. That said, over reliance on anyone teaching/training method can become a hindrance in itself. Perhaps we need to try harder to raise questions rather than provide answers — even allow a little puzzling time. No matter how great a presentation or a story is unless we take the time to reflect on it we will soon forget it.
    Getting an artist involved sounds like a great idea or what about getting people to draw their own stories since this passes responsibility back to them and encourages them to map out their thoughts? Then again……ask a child if they can draw and they think you’re insane; ask an adult and many shy away from drawing. What a pity we have not developed this valuable method of expression.

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