“Know thyself”: Why Other people are better at assessing your strengths as a presenter: Learn about Adaptive Awareness

If you are familiar with my other posts you know that I have been a communications and presentation coach for 30 years. During many coaching and teaching assignments, I am amazed at the number of people who rate themselves better than the audience members.  Rather than solicit feedback or listen to coaching tips on how to present in more effective ways I hear things like:  I am better than they rated me, or they just don’t understand this complex scientific information I am trying to communicate etc. In psychology, this is known as the defense mechanism called denial. In denial a person has difficulty perceiving any other reality besides their own so changing behavior or old habits becomes difficult. The other day while browsing in Chapel Hill bookstore I stumbled upon psychologist, Timothy Wilson’s  insightful and enlightening book Strangers to Ourselves.  In it he reviews and summarizes years of research on what he calls our adaptive unconscious, pointing out that much of what we do during every moment of every day — what we think, how we feel, the actions and results we achieve — are happening below our conscious awareness. Some of it we can notice if we engage in a little self-reflection, but much of it we simply cannot — it’s not directly accessible to us at all. Wilson cites evidence that too much introspection can actually do damage, Wilson finally makes the case for better ways of discovering our unconscious selves. If you want to know who you are or what you feel or what you’re like, Wilson advises, pay attention to what you actually do and how what we do affects what other people think about our competence and skills as an effective communicator.

Wilson says ” When you fail to reach a goal — say, for instance, you give an important presentation and it doesn’t go well — you need to become a detective (once again, largely unconsciously). You gather up the usual suspects to see who is responsible for your failure: lack of innate ability, lack of effort, poor preparation, using the wrong strategy, bad luck, etc. Of all of these possible culprits, its lack of innate ability we most frequently hold responsible, like the much-maligned butler in an Agatha Christie novel. In Western countries — and nowhere more so than in the U.S. — innate ability is the go-to explanation for all of our successes and our failures”.

Two suggestions for you to improve your behavior as a presenter are:

1. After presenting take ten minuets to reflect on your feelings and ideas of what went well and things you would to differently. To help you formalize this reflection session fill out a standard evaluation sheet that the audience members are asked to use. Also, ask a colleague or mentor to fill one out. Then tally up the responses and see if there are some agreed upon perceptions or patterns that emerge. The make an action plan to change the presentation so as to improve your performance.

2. Video tape your presentation. Review the tape using an evaluation that facilitates looking at your body language, your articulation, responses to audience and “stickiness”, believability and clarity of your message.


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