What are we to make of a recent study that showed some memory loss and impaired learning in lab rats that were kept in low lighting for a month?  When their lights were brightened, they improved.  But the conclusion the researchers came to was that low lighting isn’t good for the brain.

Now that’s interesting to me because audiences are usually plunged into darkness or low-level lighting in order to make their experience of a speaker more like a theatrical event.  The custom has two impetuses, really. The first is that when slides first became widespread, the tech involved projectors pushing light from the back of the room to the front, so a dark audience was a necessity.  Now, we have backlit screens, and so that need is no longer there.  But the custom persists.

Second, most of the teams of people who run lights are moonlighting from theatrical stage crews, or Broadway refugees.  Their normal setting is a dark audience and lots of light on stage, because that makes the actors look good.  Up to the point of, say, sunlight equivalent, the more light the better.

These are not compelling reasons; they are custom and habit, no more.  My alternate suggestion?  Bring up the house lights, at least to three quarter.  Keep the audience in lighting enough to see themselves, each other, and whatever’s happening on stage.

My primary motivation is not wanting to cue the audience – through downed lights – to go to sleep, which is the other thing that happens to most of us daily in the dark.

But now we know that (at least for lab rats) dim lighting also worsens memory and learning.  And where lab rats go, humans are not far behind.  We share most of the same DNA, and we are more alike than most people would care to admit or feel comfortable knowing.  Apparently more lighting could help older people learn and retain better, too.  So if you’re talking to an audience of senior executives, that’s two reasons to put the lights on.

And don’t get me started on seasonal affect disorder.

Finally, this discussion of lighting leads me to a final plea:  Don’t neglect the staging of your presentation.  For by far the great majority of speakers, thinking about staging doesn’t go beyond preparing some slides and hoping that they will be visible behind the speaker on big screens while the speaker is talking.

That’s a start.  It’s a primitive way to think about staging, but it’s a start.  What can you do in an increasingly competitive professional speaking landscape to stand out?  One way is to increase the production values of your speech.  If you’re a keynoter at reasonably sized events, chances are very good that you’ve got a bunch of Broadway pros working behind the scenes, barely using a tenth of their talent and imagination.  What can you add to the lighting to help tell your story?  What about sound?  What about those giant screens?  Why just limit yourself to slides, and especially just alternating between slides and you?  What else could you put on the screen that would give the audience a more powerful experience?

With all the talent and wisdom we have available to improve our stage performances, it’s a shame so much of the business world does the minimum to get by.

At least turn the lights up.


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