From the Lab: Shifting the Spotlight

As I note in the nervousness chapter of The Science of Speaking, speakers are usually much more critical of themselves than their audiences are. As Amy Cuddy notes in Presence, this is partly due to the spotlight effect, “one of the most enduring and widespread egocentric human biases—to feel that people are paying more attention to us than they actually are … and usually in a bad way, not a good way.”

As a demonstration of the spotlight effect, she cites a study by Thomas Gilovich, Victoria Medvec, and Kenneth Savitsky in which participants were asked to wear a potentially embarrassing t-shirt, then estimate how many of their classmates had noticed it. While fewer than 25% of their classmates actually noticed, the participants believed that almost 50% had. In another experiment, less than 10% of their classmates noticed their attire, while again, participants believed that nearly 50% had. In an experiment in which participants were asked how their classmates would rate their performance in a discussion, participants believed that their performance stood out much more than it actually did (in both a positive and negative direction).

Obviously, the spotlight effect can be a major contributor to speech anxiety. And in fact, a variety of studies have confirmed that the more self-focused we are, the more anxiety (and other negative emotions) we feel. So what can we do to overcome it?

First, as I have advised before, realize that the spotlight effect exists and that you are going to be much more critical of yourself than your audience will be. Don’t worry so much about what they think of you because they’re not thinking about you as much as you think. (They mostly have their own spotlights on themselves.)

Of course, I realize that this advice not to worry is really no help at all. As I’ve also noted in the past, it’s much more difficult to not do something (i.e., to stop using filler words), than it is to do something else instead (i.e., to take a deep breath instead of saying “umm”). So what is something you can do instead?

One good way to overcome the spotlight effect is to consciously shift the spotlight off of yourself and onto something else—for example, to focus on why you’re giving the speech or what you want the audience to take away from it. As the research on self-focus have shown, when you shift the heat of spotlight off yourself, you’ll begin to feel much better.

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