On the Screen: I Am Nervous (Updated)

On the finale of America’s Next Top Model, Cycle 11, Tyra Banks gives a useful piece of advice about nervousness to finalists McKey and Samantha before their runway show:

How are we feeling? A little nervous? It’s okay to say “I am nervous.” Because when you do the “I’m not nervous [freaking out], I’m not nervous [freaking out more]!” When you say “I am nervous,” it just relaxes it, it gets it out.

As the popular saying (attributed to Carl Jung) goes, that which you resist persists. Therefore, by saying you’re not nervous, you’ll only make yourself more nervous. But if you start out by admitting that you are nervous, you can actually make progress toward feeling less nervous by using one of the many techniques that I’ve shared on this blog or in the Nervousness chapter of The Science of Speaking.

Update (6/29/17): Here’s a relevant article on accepting social anxiety, published a few days ago in Psychology Today.

On the Screen: The Show Order Effect

Recently, while watching Sing It On, the show which follows groups competing in the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella, I was exposed to the idea that show order matters. According to the seasoned performers on the show, in a competition where the judges deliberate at the end, it’s best for you to perform at the end, in the 8th, 9th, or 10th slot, because the judges will be more likely to remember you. Getting an early slot, on the other hand, is the kiss of death—you have absolutely no chance of winning.

Seeing this made me wonder if there’s any empirical evidence to back up this theory. In fact (and quite unfortunately), there is. In a recent article in Slate, Karla Starr reviews the research, finding that

The “last is best” effect occurs regardless of the scoring process: whether scores are given at the end of the competition (end-of-sequence judging) or after each performance (step-by-step judging). The power of “serial position effects” to influence a competition’s outcome has been observed in natural settings including Olympic figure skating, Olympic gymnastics, the Queen Elisabeth Music Contest, the World Synchronized Swimming Meet, and a Nebraska state high school gymnastic meet.

For example, in a study of figure-skating results from 1994 to 2004, the last to perform had a 14 percent chance of winning, compared to a 3 percent chance of winning for the first performers. This suggests that simply going last can increase your chance of winning by almost a factor of five!

As Starr notes,

Unfortunately, competitions routinely reinforce the serial-position-effect bias. In figure skating, the order of the second-round performances is decided by score, with those in the lead going last. A more reasonable alternative would be to randomize the order in the first round of performances, and then reverse that order in the second round.

In any case, there are several different things we can take from this. First, if you’re sharing the stage with other people (particularly if you’re competing with them), it will obviously benefit you to go last, because the audience will be more likely to remember what you said.

Beyond that, however, the show order effect has implications for organizing all of your presentations, regardless of when they’re going to be presented. While it’s certainly important to nail your introduction and get your audience hooked before you lose their attention, it’s also important to nail your conclusion, because that’s what you audience will remember most in the end.

On the Screen: Do Your Research

Last night, my wife and I finally saw Hidden Figures. There were many great things about the movie, but I want to talk about one particular scene here today.

It’s the scene where Mary Jackson is petitioning to take classes at the segregated high school, which will enable her to apply to be an engineer. She making her case—her pitch—to the judge.

“Your Honor, you of all people should understand the importance of being first,” she says, explaining how he was the first in his family to serve in the Armed Forces and attend university, and the first State Judge to be re-commissioned by three consecutive governors.

“You’ve done some research,” he replies.

Then she explains how he has a rare opportunity to make a decision that will matter in a hundred years, another opportunity to be “the first.”

This is not only a great example of a Halo appeal specifically tailored to your audience—it’s also a great demonstration of how important it is to know your audience, to learn about them by doing some research.

It’s not that all judges want to be the first—in general, most judges actually want to avoid making waves. Their primary job is to apply the existing law to new cases, not to make decisions that overturn the existing law. But with a little research, Jackson was able to identify a personalized appeal that would work for this particular judge by referencing his history of being first.

You, too, can improve your pitches by doing some research about your audience in order to identify appeals you can tailor specifically to them. The more you know about the people in your audience, the more effectively you will be able to persuade them.