The Spot Light Effect

I use a number of techniques to help people who are nervous about speaking in public. Taking a few deep breaths before stepping behind the podium helps some. Other people rehearse ten, maybe twelve times, becoming so familiar with the material that their jitters fall away. Still others benefit from hearing about the spot light effect, the notion that the audience is probably paying less attention to you than you might think! 

[Photo Credit: Paul Green]

[Photo Credit: Paul Green]

I first read about this idea in Amy Cuddy’s book, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges. She talked about a major league baseball player who felt self-conscious when he stepped up to the plate. Seeing his face (and batting average!) plastered across the two-story scoreboard made him anxious. Some of my clients have expressed similar feelings when they’re asked to speak in public.

Here’s where the spot light effect comes in. Dozens of experiments show that we generally overestimate how much attention we think other people are paying to us. One of my favorite involves a study in which college students were asked to wear t-shirts sporting a picture of Barry Manilow. Researchers asked them to estimate what percentage of their peers they thought had noticed the embarrassing t-shirts. They said about half. In reality, only about a quarter of their peers noticed the Manilow t-shirts. In some studies, the number was as low as 10 percent.

You can read about these studies here but, in terms of public speaking, two takeaways are worth noting. The first is relax. Chances are the audience isn’t eying you as closely as you think. The second is to remember that you’re competing for their attention. They may be thinking about their daughter at school or daydreaming about their recent trip to Hawaii.  On top of that, they’re probably texting and tweeting. That’s all the more reason for you to prep great material, practice your delivery, and demand their attention with engaging and compelling remarks.

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