Photo: Oscar Keys
Public speaking is statistically American’s number one phobia–second only to creepy bugs and frightening heights. I never imagined giving a presentation in front of your boss would be scarier than the potential of plummeting 10 stories to your death, but here we are.
Luckily there is a handy trick to pull out of your arsenal the next time you have to give a big presentation in front of your peers. There are several books to read on the subject of overcoming your nerves to wow your colleagues at the next pitch meeting.
Harvard suggests avoiding this common behavior when surveying crowds before big speaking events
A very useful tip for quelling anxiety before a big speech is to avoid looking at the most expressive face in the crowd. It’s not envisioning the crowd in their underwear, who knew?
The following press release published in Harvard Business Review features some illuminating truths.
“When looking at a group, people tend to focus on faces expressing stronger emotions — whether those emotions are positive or negative — and pay less attention to faces conveying less intense emotions. In the context of public speaking, this attentional bias can shape speakers’ impressions of how they’re being received: since people pay more attention to their more-emotionally-expressive audience members, they tend to conclude that an audience’s overall reaction is more intense than it actually is.”
I used to perform stand-up before the world shut down and let me tell you focusing on the heckler with a big old sour puss plastered on their face is going to completely ruin your set. The same goes for any sort of public speaking arena.
The case study
Researchers and co-authors of the study Timothy Sweeny, Mina Cikara and James Gross conducted a series of experiments exploring this tendency to amplify groups’ emotions based on exaggerated facial expressions.
Participants in the study were shown photos depicting groups of 12 or more people. Each person in the group photo featured a facial expression common with different emotional responses, (a furrowed brow for angry, hands over the mouth for surprised, smiling widely to depict joy, etc.) After glancing at these shots participants were asked to gauge the general mood of the crowd.
Researchers noticed a few things after asking participants how they thought the crowd felt.
The first trend scientists noted was that participants almost always overestimated the emotional response of the crowd to whatever they were responding to from the speaker.
Another interesting find was that the larger the group was the further off participants were inaccurately guessing the emotionality of the crowd. The third piece of invaluable information gleaned was that participants overestimated the general mood in a group photo if a few people in the picture outwardly displayed negative emotions.
Research previously embarked upon this notion that people tend to pick up on negative emotions and expressions more so than happy ones. A co-author of the study adds the following prescient information behind why this happens.
“People’s attention is naturally drawn more to faces expressing negative emotions than to faces conveying positive ones, but our study found that this effect holds for groups as well as for individuals. People’s ability to judge a group’s emotional state isn’t just skewed towards more intense emotions — it is specifically biased toward more negative evaluations.”
Just like we’re more likely to remember a bad review over a glowing one, a person slumped over their notes frowning the entire time you’re giving an important presentation will forever haunt your memory. Not only will you remember this person more than the others listening intently, but this curmudgeon may also make you feel as if you completely whiffed your pitch.
How do I get a better read on my audience to become a more confident public speaker?
One other study showed the value of actively scanning the entire room for every face, not just the ones with overt emotional responses written all over them.
Scientists tracked where the speaker’s gaze went into the crowd using an eye-tracking apparatus. Humans are prone to get stuck on the most expressive faces in the crowd so the co-authors suggest the “entire room scan technique” to fight against this conditioning. Hyper-focusing in on the one guy not having a good time will throw your whole speech off.
As long as you actively look around at emotional and non-emotional responses you’ll get a better read of the room. This will help you become the confident speaker you’ve always dreamed of becoming! Now that you’ve faced your fear of public speaking you’ll be able to submerge yourself in a tank of tarantulas in no time.