Musicians and Graphics

Believe it or not, a new documentary called Make Believe, about a group of teenagers who compete in a championship competition for magicians in Las Vegas, offers a lesson in how to display presentation graphics. The film focuses in on one of the most fundamental techniques used in magic: misdirection, or getting the audience to look in one direction while the magician performs a trick in the other direction. Magicians create misdirection in a variety of ways, but they are all based on the reflexive action of the audience’s eyes—to look at new visual information involuntarily.

Presenters often inadvertently misuse this reflexive action of their audiences’ eyes because of one of the most commonly-held false beliefs about presentations: that if presenters turn to look at their slides, they will appear to be unsure of their own content. However, if a presenter does not turn to look at a new slide, but continues to look at the audience, the audience will become conflicted. Their optic reflexes will force them look at the new image involuntarily. At the same time, the audience will also feel compelled to return the presenter’s gaze. Driven by these two opposing impulses, the audience’s eyes will rapidly shuttle back and forth between the screen and the presenter in confusion.

The difference between the false belief and neurological fact can be described as business school or B-School thinking versus C-School, for cinema, thinking. B-School teaches students to demonstrate assuredness; C-School teaches students to be cognizant of human sensory perception. Cinematographers and film editors understand the powerful subconscious physiological and psychological forces that impact audiences. These professionals play to these dynamics; they shoot and edit sequences to create positive or negative feelings to depict action as needed. In presentations, you want to create only positive feelings in your audiences.

Therefore, as a presenter, the instant a new slide appears, you must turn to look at the screen. As a matter of fact, turn to look at the screen with every click of every slide. Every time you turn to the screen, your movement will lead your audience turn to look where you are looking. Both you and your audience will arrive at the identical point in your presentation, in synchronization.

In the Wall Street Journal review of Make Believe, film critic Joe Morgenstern wrote “In magic, as distinct from filmmaking, misdirection is a good thing.” To which I add, in presentations, misdirection is a bad thing. Always turn to look at your screen.

(This post first appeared on the Harvard Business Review blog site.)