From the Lab: Distrusting Design

In a 2004 study, Elizabeth Sillence and her colleagues found that when it comes to evaluating health websites, the factors that caused people to distrust a website related primarily to the visual appeal of the website, including: busy layout, lack of navigational aids, boring colors, small print, and too much text. The factors that caused people to trust a website, on the other hand, were primarily related to the content of the website, i.e., whether it presented informative, relevant, unbiased, audience-specific information in clear, simple language.

While these findings were generated in a web design context, they’re also quite relevant to presentation design. Just as there is a two-stage process for evaluating whether to trust a website (in which websites are eliminated based on design before they are chosen based on content), there is also a two-stage process for evaluating whether to trust a speaker. Even if you have the best content in the world, if your delivery and visual aids aren’t up to snuff, these factors can cause the audience to immediately distrust you and disregard your message before they’ve even heard it. As always, it’s not enough to have good ideas—you also need to know how to present them effectively.

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.

In the News: The Cartoon Closet

Steve Jobs and his black turtleneck. Mark Zuckerberg and his hoodie. These days, it seems that many of the most successful people in the world are turning into cartoon characters, with only one set of clothes in their closet. But it turns out that they’re doing it for a good reason, which is known in psychology as decision fatigue.

As Zuckerberg explains, “I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how to best serve this community.” As president, Barack Obama agreed, saying, “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make. … You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.” And the research suggests that they’re right: every decision we make (however small) wears us down a little bit and makes it harder for us to make decisions in the future.

In The Science of Speaking (and in yesterday’s blog post), I give specific advice on what to wear for your presentations. But it’s also worth noting that if it’s an important presentation, it may be better to focus on the presentation itself than to worry about exactly what to wear for it. Of course, you want your attire to fit in, to make you feel good, and perhaps help you stand out, but as Jobs, Zuckerberg, and Obama know, the small decisions involved in picking your attire can sap the energy you need to perform at your best.

To mitigate this potential problem, here are a few additional pieces of advice to consider when picking your attire for a speech:

  1. Pick it out ahead of time, so that you don’t have to worry about it the day of your speech.
  2. Regardless of when you pick out your attire, eat something between then and when you give your speech. As noted in the review of decision fatigue research cited above (and here), nourishing your body can renew your ability to reach peak performance.
  3. If you’re so inspired, develop a personal brand like Jobs, Zuckerberg, Obama and others, which will help you avoid decision fatigue while simultaneously guaranteeing that you always look polished and giving you a chance to stand out.

From the Lab: The Red Sneakers Effect

In The Science of Speaking, I note that when it comes to attire, it’s generally a good idea to blend in, being among the best dressed in the room, because studies have shown that this can increase your influence.

As is often the case with the science of speaking, however, another recent study introduces complexity. In an article from 2013 in the Journal of Consumer Research entitled “The Red Sneakers Effect: Inferring Status and Competence from Signals of Nonconformity,” Silvia Bellezza, Francesca Gino, and Anat Keinan report that under certain conditions, people “confer higher status and competence to non-conforming rather than conforming individuals.”

Here’s how it works. In a pilot study that compared the clothing of academics at a marketing conference, the authors found that “higher status and performance within a given community [i.e., number of peer-reviewed articles published] is correlated with a stronger tendency to deviate from a conforming dress code (e.g., wearing jeans, sneakers, T-shirts rather than professional attire).” This suggests that once your work speaks for itself, you don’t need your attire to speak for you anymore.

As the authors put it, “since nonconformity often has a social cost, observers may infer that a nonconforming individual is in a powerful position that allows her to risk the social costs of nonconformity without fear of losing her place in the social hierarchy.” Which is exactly what they found in their later experiments: non-conformity to a dress code can cause the non-conformist to be perceived as having higher status and competence.

For example, “shop assistants at luxury boutiques perceive a client to be more likely to make a purchase and to be a celebrity when she is wearing gym clothes or a Swatch than when she is wearing an elegant dress or a Rolex,” “students perceive an unshaven professor who wears a T-shirt to have higher professional status and competence than a shaven professor who wears a tie,” and people “perceive an individual wearing a red bow tie at a black-tie party in a country club as a higher-status member in the club and as a better golf player relative to a conforming individual wearing a black bow tie.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you can simply go around breaking dress codes willy-nilly and automatically be perceived as higher status. (Although the article didn’t address this concern directly, I suspect this technique is similar to that of admitting uncertainty: if you’re already perceived as an expert, admitting uncertainty or breaking the dress code will help you, but if you’re not already perceived as an expert, admitting uncertainty or breaking the dress code will hurt you.) But it does mean that in certain circumstances, having a unique look can give you a boost.

Without knowing it, I have actually been applying the red sneakers effect throughout my life. In middle school, I began a tradition of wearing unique footwear, from bright blue sneakers, to Vibram FiveFingers, to mismatched red and green slip-ons, and most recently, bright red leather loafers. While I don’t have any data about the effect of my footwear on my perceived status and competence, I can report that my footwear has always drawn attention (usually positive), and never left me without a conversation starter.

Interestingly, the authors also found that the red sneakers effect also applies to slide design. In another study, they found that people “perceive a contestant in a prestigious [business plan pitching] competition as having higher status and competence when he adopts his own layout for the presentation rather than the standard background.” So while you don’t want to go crazy and break all expectations, having a unique style of visuals can also give you a boost.