Communication tips & more

The Curse of Cognitive Load: Why complexity kills comms


‘When I saw them shuffling back from the director’s office, I knew he’d said no.’

If you’re like most people, you’re missing something crucial in how you think about communication: The impact of cognitive load.

This true story sums it up:

My client’s team pitched a project worth over $1m to the company head. They’d spent months working on it. It would benefit their department and the whole organisation—it was bound to be a sure thing.

They met their director, and pitched with gusto. He seemed convinced. But at the end, he rejected the project. They were shocked.

So when my client saw them shuffling back, his mouth dropped. ‘How could he turn down this project?!’ They shrugged.

‘Show me your slides,’ he said.

They pulled them up, all 40 of them.

He chose four, and hurried back to the director’s office. ‘Excuse me, a quick word? You declined this project, but look …’ And showed him the slides.

The director sat back, arched his eyebrows and said,

‘Oh, I didn’t realise that. Okay, it’s a yes.’

Just like that, my client saved the project. With four slides.

What happened? The complexity of the 40-slide message left doubt in the director’s mind. His safe default was ‘no’.

But the clarity of the simpler, four-slide message—slides chosen around his needs, interests and objections—gave him confidence to say yes.

Simple is good. Complex is bad.

Complexity kills comms

Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize for his work in behavioural economics.

He found our brains are ruled by two systems:

System 1: Fast, intuitive, automatic, error-prone—e.g. recognising an angry face, working out 2 x 2, or understanding simple sentences.

System 2: Slow, effortful, conscious, reliable—e.g. working out 15 x 37, resisting temptation over a long time, or finding Wally.

We prefer being in System 1 because it’s EASY. And we’ve evolved to save energy, even mental energy.

Kahneman found when you ask people to read a complex message, you push them into System-2 thinking. And because that means a dirty, four-letter word—WORK—they dislike it.

In fact, when using System 2 we become:

  • Vigilant
  • Suspicious
  • Uncomfortable.

But when you present a message our System 1 can process, we tend to:

  • Like it
  • Believe it
  • Trust it.

Are you seeing the implications here? THAT’S why we’ve been banging on for years about the importance of keeping your message simple.

‘How difficult it is to be simple.’ Vincent van Gogh

Cut cognitive load

Keeping your message simple - cut cognitive load

What’s cognitive load? Anything that adds extra processing for the brain. Things like:

  • Long words (e.g. ‘multisyllabic’ instead of ‘long’)
  • Long sentences (longer than about 20 words)
  • Fat paragraphs (longer than 4-5 lines thick)
  • Passive voice (try the ‘zombie’ test)
  • Jargon
  • Errors (e.g. punctuation, grammar)
  • Waffle (e.g. ‘at this point in time’ instead of ‘now’)
  • Nominalised verbs
  • Unnatural sequence (say it in the order it happened)
  • Long bullet lists, like this!

By themselves, we can handle each of them.

But, like lamination, it’s the layering of them that gives them their strength. The message becomes gobbledegook. Our brains are pushed into System-2 thinking, spit the dummy, and stop reading.

What else adds to cognitive load? Let us know in the comments below. 

Credosity cuts cognitive load

Our enterprise writing coach, Credosity, masterfully strips cognitive load from your messages. Savvy communicators are using it, including people at QSuper, Westpac, Qld Treasury Corporation and Santos. Like to join them?

Try it free, for 30 days.

You’ll find it simple, not complex, to use! (System 1 all the way.)

Paul & the Magneto/Credosity crew

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on google
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on email

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top