Article-Cracking The Surface

Cracking the Surface

High-Order Presentations More About “How” Than “What”

by Toby Groves, Ph.D. 

Published March 5, 2020

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Cognitive science weighs in on best practices for delivering high-order content

Imagine you’re attending the closing keynote on the final day of an important industry conference.  As you’re about to check out (figuratively as well as literally) the speaker presents information that gives you an epiphany.  Euphoria suddenly replaces your exhaustion.  Dopamine, an important neurotransmitter involved in learning​ is spurred to release at a higher volume. The information that was presented is not new but gives you insight, tying ideas together and profoundly changing the way you understand the topic.  That one idea you might have received in under a minute is worth more than the cost of attendance for the entire conference.

How can you cause your audience to interact with your subject matter in this way?  Cognitive science tells us the difference lies in how you design your presentation.  The secret is in a combination of timing and the cognitive channels you use to deliver the content.  Presentations that use an interactive, multimodal approach spark the “dual-coding” mechanism within our working memory networks.  This helps the audience gain clarity and encode ideas for easier retrieval.

“Multimodal” means simultaneously using complementary verbal/textual and visual/spatial delivery channels, and “interactive” means causing someone to interact with content in a meaningful way through simulations, modeling or real-world experiences which keeps attention and connects the learner on a deeper level to the concepts being taught, even though they’re probably unaware of your technique.

How does it work?

The interactive, multimodal learning technique takes advantage of the natural functioning of brain networks to spur the convergence of neuronal connections, supporting memory retrieval and deeper insights. Part of the reason this works is that we process visual input differently than text or sound. Working memory, where our conscious thinking happens, is dual coded with storage paths for verbal/text elements and separately for visual/spatial elements. fMRI scans confirm that when the content is presented in different modes at the same time, this dual-coding system processes visuals and text/auditory input simultaneously through separate channels.  Don’t get fooled however, into thinking it’s as simple as talking about something while you’re showing it on a screen.

As is said in cognitive science, neurons that fire together, wire together.  More and different neural connections to the same content is a good thing.  It enriches our understanding, supports insight, and allows us to transfer ideas to different situations. A meta-analysis* found that learners could achieve a 32% improvement in scores on assessment tests for high-order skills where the interactive, multimodal approach was used over the standard non-interactive, unimodal approach to learning.  The gains were smaller for basic skills but still near 10% which is nothing to ignore.   One reason we see smaller gains for basic skills may be because learners already possess the cognitive skills necessary to be successful at simpler tasks.

Consider this:  Even though I’m not physically in your environment to present information in the dual-channel format, you still received a small dose of the multi-modal approach in the first paragraph.  I conjured the idea of being at a conference that automatically spurred memories of past events along with general schemas you hold in your mind about conferences.  You probably searched your memory (successfully I hope) for times you experienced insights during conference presentations.

I cued you to form a mental picture (visual/spatial channel) in your mind while you were simultaneously reading (verbal/text channel) about the topic.  Now for the Trifecta – The interactive component could be achieved, for example, if I was presenting about the psychological concept of confirmation bias and engaged you in an exercise where you fell prey to the bias despite your best efforts.  Then I would lead you to understand why and guide you to successfully avoid it in subsequent exercises.

“Unstick” your audience

The multimodal approach has the best chance of bringing an insight when the content in the different channels (visual and verbal) is complementary but not the same.  It’s helpful when one of the channels provides a different and useful perspective.  Your audience should be able to easily correlate the different modes of content, but it’s best if they are not an exact match.  If the channels are too redundant, the learner may begin to ignore one delivery mode because it’s effort without a reward.  On the other hand, if the content is so different that the audience can’t determine any correlation, cognitive overload and confusion will ensue.  In either of the latter cases, you’ve lost them.  Remember that attention is already fragile when we are discussing complex topics.

Remember that people tend to focus on “surface facts” because they are the easiest to grasp, but your goal is to get your audience unstuck from that surface structure.  In order to get them unstuck, I often use various case examples from different industries than that of the audience.  If I’m talking to fraud investigators about psychological aspects of investigations, I might take them into an NTSB investigation to make my points.  This forces the audience to shift away from surface facts about investigations and move towards a deeper, conceptual structure of the topic.

The effectiveness of your method depends, of course, on the nature of your message and the characteristics of your audience, such as whether they are novices or experts. These characteristics will change their natural thinking patterns and tendencies.  Understanding the cognitive mechanisms involved in how audiences learn and think allows you to develop and deliver your message to take advantage of those cognitive tendencies.  A little bit of research about your audience and cognitive psychology will deliver big returns.


Toby Groves, Ph.D. is a speaker and social-cognitive researcher.  You can contact him at


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*The meta-analysis referenced was conducted by The Metiri Group and published in a Cisco white paper titled “Multimodal Learning Through Media: What the Research Says”



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