Content and cognitive load: how to craft your copy for the human brain

The human brain only has so much space to concentrate on different ideas – and if you ask it to do too much, it'll probably stop paying attention altogether. So, how do you stop readers tuning out from your content? John explores cognitive load theory, and how you can use it to create brain-friendly copy...

Content and cognitive load: how to craft your copy for the human brain

Have you ever tried to use an old computer to do anything remotely taxing – like editing a picture, playing a game, or daring to have more than one instance of Word open at once?

If you have, you’ll be all too familiar with the frustration of a spinning cursor wheel, or the words ‘not responding’ dominating in the application window; that creeping sense of dread as your laptop grinds to a halt due to a lack of RAM, or just gives up altogether.

To be honest, I relate. I feel exactly the same way if asked to juggle too many tasks or wrap my head around something complex (talk to me about blockchain – I dare you). In fact, some mornings if I’m asked to do much more than make coffee and smile, I can feel my inner wheel of death starting to whirl. And it turns out there’s a reason for that.

Interestingly, the human brain works more or less the same way as a computer, with only a finite amount of RAM available to concentrate on things before enough is enough and we have to ctrl-alt- del our minds. Or at least that’s my very loose understanding of what cognitive load theory means.

Cognitive what?

Cognitive load is a term used to describe the total amount of mental effort used to accomplish a task. For instance, if you’re reading a white paper, your brain is focusing on lots of things; it’s navigating the layout, it’s breaking up complex language, and it’s trying to comprehend multifaceted concepts.

If all of these tasks amount to too much, you get cognitive overload – a situation where, just like an old laptop, your mind will slow down, start making mistakes and, in some cases, just give up altogether.

Why should any of us care about this? Because increasingly, cognitive load theory is being used as an educational tool, helping teachers identify the best way to present complex information to their students. And as marketers, we can use it the same way.

Cognitive overload: AKA here comes the science bit

So, theoretically, we can use cognitive load theory to figure out the best way to feed information to our prospects. But, before we can do that, we must first understand the intricacies of the human mind. By which I mean the very basic working of how we process information. Although, that doesn’t sound nearly as impressive.

According to my in-depth research, there are three different types of cognitive load.

Intrinsic: This refers to the inherent difficulty of the material itself, something that will differ based on the individual’s experience and existing knowledge of the subject matter.

Extraneous: This refers to the loads generated by the way the material is presented – something marketers should be particularly aware of.

Germane: This refers to the patterns, models and associations the mind uses to aid information processing.

Brain, meet breaking point

So, what happens when we reach cognitive overload; when the subject matter is complex and presented badly? The truth is, we’ve all been there. How many times have you found yourself repeatedly reading the same paragraph of a particularly dry piece of writing? Yep, same.

And how many times have you found yourself repeatedly reading the same paragraph of a particularly dry piece of writing. I kid.

In truth, cognitive overload can result in faulty recall, errors, task abandonment, failing to follow instructions, and even things like job stress and tension between colleagues. So, if you want information to stick, you have to start thinking about how to avoid cognitive overload.

Here are a few simple rules to help you do just that.

Focus on the user experience

One thing you definitely don’t want to do is place unnecessary strain on your reader’s brain by presenting information in a complex way.

So, whether it’s a blog, an eBook or a SlideShare, make sure it’s easy to navigate, that design is intuitive rather than for show, and that all links and CTAs are clear.

Write how you’d want to read

A big part of this user experience is to do with the way you write. So our advice is, if you’re explaining complex ideas, write them the way you’d want to read them, and don’t let your copy provide any extra barriers to learning.

This means short sentences, multiple sub-headers and bullet points to break up the copy, and images and videos to help support and explain difficult concepts.

Pick a message, any message

Research shows that trying to cover too much ground when you’re writing about a topic is a distraction. And the same goes for multiple CTAs. Ask too much of your audience, and you’ll get too little in return.

The lesson here is to make your messages singular and clear. Muddying the waters could quite easily cause your readers to give up and wander off.

Provide cognitive aids

You can use tools within your marketing materials to support some of the demands on working memory. Things like checklists, glossaries, quick reference guides, and diagrams don’t just work to break up the copy, but actually provide easier ways for your readers to remember complex ideas.

 

Although I’ve obviously explained this brilliantly, cognitive load is a fairly complex affair, and there’s a lot more to it than I could fit in this blog post. If this seems like something you’re interested in, why not do some further reading (Sarah Richards’ book Content Design is a great place to start) or find us on social media and tell us what you think.


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