How To's

The Spotlight Effect On You

No One Notices Your Bad Hair Day

It’s true! According to social psychologists, the Spotlight Effect is the tendency for people to believe that others pay more attention to us than they really do. Simply put, the Spotlight Effect occurs because we are egocentrically the centre of our own universe. And because we think we are fascinating, we assume, we must be fascinating to everyone else! However, everyone else is terribly busy being the centre of their own universe, so really, no one notices your bad hair day.

Quick Quiz

  • If you trip and fall, do you quickly look around to see if anyone has noticed?
  • If your shirt has a small stain, do you find yourself covering it up with your bag?
  • If you say something brilliant at a meeting and no one else comments on it, do you find yourself getting annoyed or doubting the validity of your contribution?

How did you go? If you answer any more than one “yes”, you are NORMAL. These everyday examples of the Spotlight Effect, affect all of us, some of the time.

Legends In Our Own Mind
Spotlights magnify and enlarge and what is under that lens appears… bigger. So big, that we are sure others will be able to see us in all our glory, good and bad.

People generally overestimate their impact on others. I see this often with clients who assume that everyone in the group or audience has superhuman powers of perception and can see how nervous / incompetent / unprepared / a fraud they really are. Not so.

Groups Not So Scary
Interestingly, when people are members of a group their attention is split between themselves as an individual and that of the whole group. Ever spoken up in a group and felt “ignored”? Or felt the pressure of “so many eyes” that your every move will be scrutinised? Again, not so. At least 50% of the group’s attention at any one time is focussed on the whole group, not on you. It’s not that your contribution isn’t valued, it’s that there are so many contributions for group members to focus on. You just can’t have all the attention all the time.

Nervous About Looking Nervous
Research has found that an audience does not notice you are nervous as much as you imagine. You are often the only one who knows. People routinely overestimate that their internal states (feelings and thoughts) are leaking out and that others can see. They become nervous about looking nervous and that others will think less of them.

It’s a bit like worrying about not falling asleep. The worry increases adrenaline, activates the stress response and you have trouble falling asleep. When people worry about public speaking nerves, adrenaline courses through, the stress response activates, generating sensations of fast beating heart, shortness of breath, constricted throat, feelings of panic, trembling limbs, shaky voice and so on. The fear of social judgement flags potential embarrassment, magnifying the Spotlight Effect to make speaking in public a bigger deal than it needs to be.

Your brain is plastic, which means that anything you have learned in the past can be unlearned. If fear is getting in the way of you achieving your potential, this article “Overcoming Your Fear” by Verity Chadwick at Neuronation explains how you can learn how to change it by changing your brain.

Give Yourself A Reality Check

1. Transfer your attention away from yourself to others. Remind yourself that the Spotlight Effect works both ways. You are not the centre of their universe; they are! Remember that in a group, everyone’s attention is split, so you will be doing well if you receive even 50% of their attention.

2. Shift and broaden your perspective by asking yourself: will I remember this moment in 5 years, 20 years, or at the birth of my first grandchild? And, will this audience group remember my presentation in 5 years, 20 years or at the birth of their first grandchild? I think you know the answer.

3. Listen and watch body language from your audience group when it’s feedback time. If someone says: “That was really good” and smiles warmly at you…. well, believe it. Notice if you habitually ignore positive feedback and focus on “the awful experience.” When we focus on the fear inside, we miss the valuable, character building, good stuff on the outside.

You Can Choose To Ignore The Spotlight Effect On You

Consistently speakers rate themselves as more nervous than what their listeners would rate them. Next time, why don’t you choose to listen to your listeners first, rather than the grandiose, fear-mongering, exaggerations generated by your personal Spotlight Effect?

© 2015, Geraldine Barkworth, public speaking coach. This article or review is the author’s opinion only.