Public speaking : the fear of making mistakes

Amongst the many things people worry about, when they are about to present or speak in public, is making mistakes! The truth is, people in the audience will rarely notice. And if they do, it probably won’t have the same impact on them as it has on you. In fact, they may even like you all the more because of it.

What people don’t realise is that, in many situations, the audience will not even notice that you have made a mistake and that is because they have nothing to compare it with.

When speaking in public, only you know the script, the content of your presentation or speech. The audience has no idea whether you use one word instead of another or if you forget a whole section of your speech. No one will notice, because they simply can’t tell.

The only place where the concept of mistakes exists is in your mind, so if you make a mistake, don’t draw the audience’s attention to it, don’t apologise or make a fuss, just carry on and no one will know any better.

In a separate article, I referr to the Spotlight Effect, a tendency to over exaggerate the importance of certain events in other people’s eyes. Mistakes are definitely one of them. If your overall message is clear, a small mistake, even if noticed in the moment, will not really impact the experience of the audience. It is unlikely to be the focus of their attention and will disappear from memory as quickly as the detail of your content. Statistics show that people forget 40% of what is said within 20 minutes, 60% within half a day and 90% within a week!

Besides, not getting it absolutely right can work in your favour. In his book, 59 Seconds – Think a little, change a lot, Richard Wiseman’s refers to a study conducted by the University of California, where researchers recorded a contestant answering a quiz. The contestant did a great performance and answered 90% of the questions correctly.

The team of scientists conducting the research then made two tapes which were completely identical except for the fact the contestant could be heard spilling a fictitious cup of coffee at the end of one of the tapes.

Two groups were made to listen to the tape, one with the spilling of coffee at the end, one without, and were asked to rate how much they liked that person. Results showed very clearly that ratings were consistently higher in the group where the coffee was spilled.

This is a common psychological phenomenon referred to as the “Pratfall effect” a situation whereby the attractiveness of a person, perceived as competent, increases if the person commits a blunder. It is explained by the fact that people often find it difficult to associate with a flawless performance but warm to a more human display recognising themselves in that person as also human and not perfect!

Accepting mistakes as a learning tool is an essential part of building public speaking confidence. Don’t dwell on them, welcome the learning and concentrate on identifying ways of getting a better result in the future.

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