One of the most fundamental techniques used in magic is misdirection, or getting the audience to look in one direction while the magician performs an action—such as hiding a handkerchief—in the other direction, making it seem that the handkerchief has magically disappeared. You can watch a wallet, a watch, and other objects seemingly disappear in a wonderful demonstration of this technique by Apollo Robbins who bills himself as the world’s best pickpocket. But what works for Apollo Robbins can backfire for you in a presentation.

Misdirection is based on the reflexive action of the audience’s eyes—to look at new visual information involuntarily. This action has been thoroughly examined by scientists. An article in the journal Frontiers of Human Neuroscience, citing multiple studies, observes:

It has been argued that the mechanism involved in preventing participants from detecting the [misdirection] method is analogous to inattentional blindness (Kuhn and Tatler, 2005; Kuhn and Findlay, 2010). Inattentional blindness refers to the phenomena that people often fail to perceive a fully visible event when engaged in an attentionally demanding distractor task (Mack and Rock, 1998; Simons and Chabris, 1999). Given the similarity between inattentional blindness and misdirection, it has been argued that the principles involved in misdirection rely on inattentional blindness, whereby people’s attention is misdirected thus preventing them from perceiving the method (Kuhn and Findlay, 2010).

Presenters often inadvertently abuse this phenomenon because of one of the most commonly held false beliefs about presentations: that if a presenter turns 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 and continues to look at the audience, the audience will become conflicted. The audience’s optic reflexes will force them to look at the slide involuntarily. At the same time, the audience will also feel compelled to return the presenter’s gaze because of basic human empathy. Driven by these two opposing impulses, the audience will become confused, and their eyes will rapidly shuttle back and forth between the screen and the presenter.

The difference between the false belief and neurological fact can be defined as B-School (business school) thinking versus C-School (cinema school) thinking. B-School teaches students to demonstrate assuredness; C-School teaches students to understand human sensory perception. Cinematographers and film editors understand the powerful subconscious physiological and psychological forces that impact audiences. 

You can combine B-School and C-School thinking in your presentation, i.e. demonstrate assuredness and understand the human perception, by doing the following:

When you present in person, the instant a new slide appears, pause and then turn to look at the screen. In fact, pause and 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 to turn to look where you are looking. Both you and your audience will arrive at the identical point in your presentation, in synchronization. The same applies when you present virtually—with a slight variation—pause and look away from the webcam to your slide with every click.

You can see another variation of misdirection in a documentary called Make Believe. 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. Leave the misdirection to Apollo Robbins; instead lead your audience directly to what you want them to see.

This blog is an excerpt from my book Winning Strategies for Power Presentations published by Pearson. Also check out my newly released Presentation Trilogy—Presenting to Win, The Power Presenter, and In the Line of Fire—available on Amazon and other retailers.