In a recent blog entry for Harvard Business Review, Jerry Weissman argued that misdirection is for magicians, not for presenters.
Misdirection is one of the few words of the specialist magician’s vocabulary that have made it into common vernacular. ((A. S. Fleischman (1949), Words in modern magic, American Speech (24)1, pp. 38–42.)) It refers to an essential technique in sleight of hand conjuring to distract the audience so that the actions of the magician that are the real cause of the magic can not be perceived. Some contemporary magicians no longer use the term misdirection but prefer ‘attention management’ to indicate that that the audience is directed towards the narrative of the magic trick instead of the technique.
This technique is not only used by magicians but all forms of the performing arts. Some even argue that misdirection is an essential skill in everyday human interaction. ((Erving Goffman (1959), The performance of self in everyday life, Anchor Books.)) Erving Goffman described human interaction in a theatrical metaphor and emphasised the importance of managing impressions people have of each other.
Any good presenter is deeply involved in managing the attention of the audience away from the less important aspects of the presentation and focuses the attention on the important parts. In the Powerpoint era, beautifully designed slides can be used to give credence to an otherwise weak argument. The summarised and seemingly well-flowing information hides gaps in knowledge and insecurities of the presenter.
We all require misdirection in our daily and professional lives to construct who we are by our ideal self. People holding corporate positions, for example, communicate through clothing and are, according to Goffman:
… blinding themselves and others to the fact that they hold their jobs partly because they look like executives, not because they can work like executives.
Goffman’s ideas might seem a pessimistic interpretation of human interaction, but deception is part of life because social reality is subjective. The manager has become an archetype of contemporary society. The manager is the prime example of homo economicus, the rational thinking problem solver that always seeks to maximise benefit, independent of social reality. This thought is, however, only an ideal that many of us strive to and we all play a role in the great theatre of life. This process occurs subconsciously and is a universal human trait.
Business presentations are a form of theatre even more so. Brief monologues designed to convince the listener that the presenter’s ideas should be implemented. Misdirection is a valid and natural way to create the ideal self of the lucid manager and convince people with your presentations. This post is, however, not an invitation to deceive in business presentations. Misdirection only works when it is subtle and skillfully applied.