A client of mine delivered a presentation in the pitch dark. Let's call him Mike. Mike worked at Gartner, the IT think tank, as a senior analyst for many years. He's retired now, but in his day he was a great speaker.

In a seminar at Gartner, I introduced him and his colleagues to the principles of cognitive guidance, developed by Richard E. Mayer, a psych professor at UC Santa Barbara. One of the principles stipulates that people learn more when words and pictures are contiguous (or next to each other) on the slide.

On the basis of that theory, I suggested to Mike that a speaker could transmit more information to an audience if he or she stood next to the slide and pointed out relevant items on it. Mike adopted the practice until it became a habit.

Here's an email he sent me:

I was presenting to an audience of about 1,000 when the lights went out in the hotel, and stayed out for the entire presentation. Rather than waste everyone's time, I decided to press on with my presentation in the pitch black from memory, and it went pretty well.

But the funny thing was, as I was "presenting" by visualizing the sequence of slides in my mind, I found myself hand-pointing in the dark to the screen every time the slide changed in my mind.

By "hand-pointing," Mike means he was pointing with his whole hand to images or bullet points on the slide that neither he nor his audience could see.

It's amazing that the talk was a success. I suspect it succeeded because:

  1. Mike knew the material cold.
  2. The decision to go ahead in the dark was a risk and heightened his ability to focus.
  3. In the more concentrated silence of the darkness, the audience probably listened more attentively.
  4. And finally, the pitch black could have sharpened their hearing and enabled them to retain more information.

Granted, this is a story about preparation, knowing your material, being able to proceed even when the electricity goes out or the projector breaks.

But might it be possible that even without a slide, if Mike was clear and concise in presenting his thought, the listeners could have "seen" what Mike was saying? Obviously, not the exact image on Mike's slides, but a visual, nonetheless, suggested by precise and powerful language, that painted a picture in the theater of their minds.