Have you ever made a mistake and then convinced yourself that it would make others question your competence? Did you believe that this one mistake could begin to undo all your hard work? I have. I have absolutely given too much significance to slips of the tongue, awkward bumbling over computer wires, and minor episodes of forgetfulness. If you have too, I have some good news for you.
There is a psychological phenomenon investigated by Elliot Aronson in 1966 called “The Pratfall Effect.” It predicts that, for people who are already perceived as competent (as you no doubt are), mistakes can actually make you more likeable, relatable, and attractive. My favorite example of this is Jennifer Lawrence at the Oscars. She tripped walking up the stairs to the stage and people loved her for it. Maybe that’s not quite exactly the same as me spilling tea on myself in a meeting, but the comparison still holds.
People often feel threatened by seemingly “perfect” people. Luckily for the rest of us, however, the Pratfall Effect is a proven psychological phenomenon. Confront your slip-ups with confidence and the world will love you for it.
Never treat your audience as customers, always as partners.
The Social Facilitation Effect is the tendency for people to perform differently in front of an audience than they do when they’re alone. When I first read about this, I thought that of course this so obviously makes sense. Nothing earth-shattering here. I already know that it’s much harder to talk in front of a large audience than to one person. But wait, this experience is actually more nuanced than that.
Research shows that for tasks that a performer knows well, the social facilitation effect can actually improve performance. What a great thing! It turns out that practicing my presentations over and over actually does help me become a more effective public speaker. It’s a great confidence builder to know that if you’re well-prepared, your audience can push you toward success. Next time I have a public speaking challenge, I’m going to visualize the audience as a benevolent group that is helping me perform at a higher level than I could on my own. After all, it’s science.
Update 1: I was discussing this with my daughter yesterday while we were driving to her ice-skating competition. She was telling me that she was nervous to skate in front of a big audience, and so I briefly explained that Social Facilitation Effect predicts that the combination of hard work, practice, and the energy of an audience will help her perform better than she might on her own. After a successful one-foot spin and two gold medals, we are both true believers.
Update 2: I was in Florida to speak at a conference this past week. Although I was a little bit nervous, I remembered the social facilitation effect and walked to the front of the room with confidence. I smiled and the audience smiled. Rather than robotically scanning the room, I spoke to individual faces and people stayed engaged. I walked toward people when they asked me questions. In short, it was a great experience. I actually had someone ask me for public speaking tips after my presentation!