It might sound counterintuitive, but studies show once you realize that you're not the focus of everyone's attention, your confidence and self-esteem will soar. You'll become a better public speaker because you will have the courage to stand up and speak out.
In 2000, a group of scientists conducted a groundbreaking research project and dubbed their finding "The Spotlight Effect." In short, "People tend to believe that the social spotlight shines more brightly on them than it really does."
I revisited the original research into the Spotlight Effect after an event this summer when I taught an executive education course at Harvard University.
In order for the forty students enrolled in the program to receive their degrees, they had to present their final projects to a roomful of peers, faculty and judges including myself. The speakers--all accomplished senior leaders and successful entrepreneurs-- put a lot of pressure on themselves. Many were nervous and anxious for weeks ahead of the presentation. Sound familiar?
When each speaker had finished, I asked them how they felt about their presentation. They made the following comments:
"I was so nervous. I was shaking."
"I forgot what to say about a slide."
"I stumbled over my words."
"I totally lost my place."
Nearly everyone highlighted their flaws. Well, their perceived flaws. You see, no one in the audience had spotted the mistakes. I was looking for areas to praise and to criticize, and even I didn't see the same mistakes the speakers had magnified in their own eyes.
We are much more focused on ourselves than we are on someone else's mistakes or flaws.
Why hadn't their peers noticed the same mistakes? Those who hadn't presented yet were focused on their upcoming presentation while those who had presented were focused on how relieved they were. As humans we are much more focused on ourselves than we are on someone else's mistakes or flaws. It's that simple, and that's the spotlight effect in action.
According to the research, it's a common habit for people to stumble in a presentation and feel embarrassed, ashamed or play the mistake over and over in their minds. But the reality is that the audience didn't notice. The constant replaying of mistakes in your head makes you more nervous the next time you have to speak or present.
The researchers conducted a series of clever experiments to arrive at the spotlight effect. In one study, college students entered a social setting wearing a shirt with a photo of Barry Manilow. The researchers decided that Manilow wasn't popular with college students and they were right--a majority of the participants expressed embarrassment at having to wear the T-shirt.
After the event, the students were asked how many of their peers noticed the shirt. In almost every case, the students significantly overestimated the number of observers who could recall the face on the T-shirt. The students felt embarrassed, but few people noticed--and those who did simply didn't care.
Don't magnify your 'flaws.'
The research has implications for anyone who gets nervous about public-speaking, delivering presentations, or speaking up in a meeting. People are reluctant to speak up because they fear rejection and their fear is based on how they perceive their mistakes and flaws will be received. But once again, nobody cares as much you think.
If you unreasonably magnify your mistakes, you're less likely to participate in social events that are good for your career--or simply good for your life. The researchers concluded: "People do not dance, sing, play a musical instrument, or join in the organization's softball game because of the fear that they will look bad...The present research suggests that a great many of these fears may be misplaced or exaggerated.
According to the studies, once you realize that "you are the center of your universe, not another person's universe," you're more likely to face your fear, speak out and stand up for your opinions.
Don't get me wrong. My work is intended to help you create the most memorable and compelling presentation of your life. I want people to pay attention to you. But if you avoid public speaking or suffer from stage fright, you need to conquer your fear to be your best.
So the next time you're hyper-focused on a 'bad hair day' or the stain on your shirt or forgetting your place or stumbling over some of your words, remember that nobody else notices as much as you do. During a presentation, keep your mind focused on the positive--and how passionate you feel about your ideas.