From the Lab: A Second Pair of Eyes

In a recent post on Lifehacker, Patrick Allan highlighted new research by David White, Clare Sutherland, and Amy Burton showing that strangers are actually better at picking profile pictures for us than we are. The researchers dub this the “curse of self,” which is a special kind of “curse of knowledge” in which it’s impossible to see ourselves as others see us.

In addition to suggesting that perhaps we should let others pick our profile pictures for us, this research serves as a general reminder that it’s always a good idea to have a second (or third, or fourth) pair of eyes (and ears) review our presentations, from our content to our delivery to our visual aids, so that we can get unbiased feedback from the perspective of the audience. As hard as it can be for us to do this, it will make our presentations significantly better.

In the News: Clickety Claque

In a recent edition of The Washington Post, Henry Farrell wrote about engineered applause.

He quotes the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica entry for “claque,” which is

an organized body of professional applauders in the French theatres. The hiring of persons to applaud dramatic performances was common in classical times, and the emperor Nero, when he acted, had his performance greeted by an encomium chanted by five thousand of his soldiers … The recollection of this gave the 16th-century French poet, Jean Daurat, an idea which has developed into the modern claque. … There are commissaires, those who learn the piece by heart, and call the attention of their neighbours to its good points between the acts. The rieurs are those who laugh loudly at the jokes. The pleureurs, generally women, feign tears, by holding their handerkerchiefs to their eyes. The chatouilleurs keep the audience in a good humour, while the bisseurs simply clap their hands and cry bis! bis! to secure encores.

As Farrell writes, a

system of complex social influence explains how audiences respond to speeches and plays. Typically, when we decide to clap or cheer, or to sit down and remain silent, we are not only thinking about our own reaction to the speaker. We are also thinking about how those around us are reacting, and are likely to react. … Nearly all of us look to those around us before we decide to publicly express our feelings of approval or disapproval. This, in turn, means that applause, standing ovations and the like can be produced through clever social engineering.

While I don’t necessarily recommend seeding your audience with rieurs and bisseurs — at its core, Farrell’s article is a critique of the practice — the basic concept of social proof is one that is essential to The Science of Speaking. As I note in the book, it’s often the case that people are more likely to do something because other people are doing it than they are to do it because there’s a good reason to do it. This principle can be used to great effect in your pitches.