People who have tried public speaking, or networking, and hated it will often think that their nerves or discomfort were obvious to the audience or other attendees. This “spotlight effect” is in fact the combination of a number of mental processes – and some of them are surprisingly easy to overcome.
Perhaps the most common contributor to the spotlight effect is the misconception called “the illusion of transparency”. This is the belief that your inner dialogue and emotional state are being clearly signalled to those around you. This is not the case at all – in fact our relative lack of transparency is what makes the related “illusion of insight” so misleading.
Coupled with the false belief that our nervousness is being clearly signalled is our inherent tendency to put ourselves at the centre of any situation. As a result we once again inflate the visibility and importance to other people of our mental state, and then start to over-compensate for what we believe they are thinking. This leads to increasing levels of self-consciousness, amplifying the negative experience of the “spotlight effect”.
If you’re sceptical about how little of your inner dialogue is opaque to other people then try this quick test, based on an experiment by psychologist Elizabeth Newton. Think of three different well known songs or tunes and tap them out with your finger whilst asking a friend to guess what they are, before reversing roles and you listening and attempting to identify the tune. The results will at best be only a little above chance because whilst you hear the tune and believe the tapping to be a clear indication when you are listening you hear only the tapping. This is just one illustration of how our thoughts and signals are not anywhere near as transparent as the spotlight effect leads us to believe.
What’s the best way to address the spotlight effect? Work done in 2003 with groups of people asked to speak in public showed that making yourself aware of the spotlight effect being normal, and aware of it being based on incorrect assumptions about ourselves and others, were fundamental in helping people to control it. As a result people rated their confidence more highly, which encouraged them to relax, starting a positive cycle of reinforcement.
Despite this knowledge you may still find yourself feeling in the spotlight when speaking or networking. In that case then pausing to take a breath before moving onto your next point, or replying to someone, is a useful and unobtrusive way of giving yourself some time to get your perspective back. You can make extra time again by repeating a question back to the person who asked it, which has the additional benefit of checking their meaning, showing you’re listening, and giving you more time to reflect and relax.
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