Being able to shift complex ideas from your brain into that of a prospect—in the quickest, least painful way–is increasingly important. Especially as more B2B technology marketers target non-IT personas. Understanding how cognitive load works could be the key.
Unless you’re this guy, it’s likely you’re gulping, furrowing your brow….
…and giving up.
I know I did.
But more pertinently, that mental struggle you felt? It has a lot to do with B2B technology marketing.
That mental exertion, what’s called high cognitive load, was first introduced to me by long-time friend, and the creative director at GetIT Comms Jayan Narayan.
Like many conscientious marketers (well, people really) I like to think things through. Doing so, however, can often result in complexity. For example, I’ll start with a concept for a campaign, and add in an idea, layer in another one, and then before I know it, I’m lost.
So, I’ll pop into Jayan’s office and lay out my idea for him. I’m not sure he appreciates being used as a sounding board, but he’s nice like that. Once he’s heard me out, often he’ll smile, and tell me gently, “high cognitive load for the audience, no?”
Cognitive load: It’s something we all intuitively understand. We think it’s code for, “requires too much mental computing power.”
Years later, I decided to figure out whether that assumption checked out.
What I learnt changed my thinking about communicating complex, multi-layered ideas, which, for most B2B technology marketers, is a Wednesday afternoon.
I also learnt that I was late to the party. Teachers, good teachers that is, have been gaming our cognitive load for years, in an attempt to make us learn faster, and retain learning longer.
By gaming the cognitive load of our audience, we too can help potential prospects understand our offerings more easily. This is increasingly important as more B2B technology marketers target less-tech savvy business personas such as CFOs, COOs, etc.
(As an aside: Remember when we kept reminding IT folks, rather condescendingly, to talk in the language of ‘the business’? If data and technology are now the beating heart of business, then business folks should no longer be allowed the excuse of not understanding technology. Ah! The sweet circle of life!)
But first, what’s cognitive load?
Before we get into what’s cognitive load, a quick word about working memory: In general, we’re able to hold 4 things (ideas, numbers, concepts) in our heads—not seven as we’ve been told before. You’ll see why this is important in a bit.
Now let’s dive into cognitive load . The first thing to know is that there are actually three types of cognitive load.
The first is the intrinsic type. That’s the load on our working memory that’s inherent with certain tasks, a load, in effect, we cannot do much to lower. The act of adding 2 plus 2, for example, has a certain in-built load, it’s a load that comes with the act and cannot really be avoided.
Multiplying 2 into 2 is easy. So easy, it’s practically a reflex. That act represents low intrinsic load. Multiplying 16 into 9, however, has comparatively higher intrinsic load.
Many B2B technology marketers instinctively know this, which is why we often anchor new or difficult ideas to an audience’s existing knowledge base.
So, for example, we’d explain a concept—like a columnar database—by referencing concepts our audience are already aware of—like a relational database.
This can help lower high intrinsic load.
Offering examples is yet another way to lower intrinsic load. (This isn’t something you see often in B2B technology marketing material.)
The second is extraneous load. This one is easy. It’s the unnecessary load we place on working memory in order to learn something new.
Here’s a popular example: Say you were trying to teach a child what a square was. One way of doing that would be to explain, verbally, what a square is.
You’d say something like, “draw a horizontal line. Now draw another line that’s perpendicular to the first line…”
By now the child’s cognitive load is high. Her working memory is struggling with three pieces of information: what a line is (low intrinsic load), verticality (does that mean up and down, or left and right?) and perpendicularity (what, in the lord’s name, is that?)
This is an unnecessarily complex (high extraneous load) way to explain a square.
The easier way? Draw it and name it.
Again, many B2B technology marketers instinctively know this. Which is why we prefer to use graphical interfaces to explain concepts, including infographics, and videos.
The third is germane load. Germane load is the B2B marketers’ friend—when we can achieve it.
Germane load is when we can force or inspire an audience to make a new concept part of their thinking, to take in new data into working memory, and while there, match it against existing information, manipulate it to make it more relevant to their world view, to assimilate it and make it their own.
This act improves learning. It drives new information into long-term memory and ensures more accurate retention for a longer period.
Here’s an example: Explain to a prospect the basics of how AI works and what it can do. And then ask her to think of organizational challenges she can fix with AI. The act, and the struggle of that act, trigger a process in which she will own a new concept, creatively come up with new ideas, and then—and here’s the best part—nurture that idea because she gave birth to it.
At that point you’ve created a marketing miracle.
Our understanding of different types of cognitive loads can help us better achieve one of our aims as B2B technology marketers: To transfer complex, multi-layered ideas from one brain to another as quickly and painlessly as possible, and to do so in a way that engenders thought-provoking long-term memory. If you’re still wondering: 17 into 32, minus 502 equals 42. The answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything.