Cognitive Biases: A Guide for Public Speakers

You may think that you are a sensible, rational thinker. You likely believe that you’re open-minded, objective, and someone who sees the world as it is.

Unfortunately, your brain is playing mind games with you.

In reality, while you are incredibly intelligent, you’re susceptible to a swarm of cognitive biases which constantly pull you toward irrational thoughts and judgments.

This article is the first of the Cognitive Bias series — a collection of articles which examine cognitive biases, describe how they impact you and your audience, and explore practical strategies you can use in response.

Cognitive Biases: Definitions, Causes, and Examples

What is a cognitive bias?

A cognitive bias is a systematic pattern of flawed judgment.

Under normal circumstances, most people tend to be pretty rational, and they make judgments in sensible ways. Indeed, our society and its institutions depend on rational behaviour. We expect jurors to behave rationally when deliberating on the guilt or innocence of the accused. We expect teachers and students, doctors and nurses, pedestrians and drivers, and everyone else to behave rationally.

However, in certain circumstances, people deviate from rational behaviour in remarkably predictable ways. Dozens of distinct cognitive biases have been identified, studied, and confirmed through decades of research. Here’s just a few examples of cognitive biases that are relevant to public speaking:

  • Spotlight Effect
    The tendency to overestimate how much people notice how you look and act.
  • Illusion of Transparency
    The tendency to overestimate the degree to which others can know your mental state.
  • Curse of Knowledge
    The tendency to presume that when you know something, everyone else must know it too.
  • Halo Effect
    The tendency to judge people broadly based on a small number of positive qualities.

Who is affected by cognitive biases?

We are all susceptible to cognitive biases. I am. You are. Everyone in your audience is. Everyone you work with is. All of your friends and family members are. Women are. Men are. Adults and children are.

However, we aren’t equally susceptible to every cognitive bias, and we aren’t all impacted in identical ways. For one cognitive bias, I may be more susceptible than you are; for a different cognitive bias, I may be more immune.

What causes cognitive biases?

There’s no easy answer here. There are many theories and much ongoing debate. Some of the proposed causes include:

  • Processing heuristics — Our brains have process limitations, so we use heuristics (shortcuts) to cope.
  • Imperfect memory — We are limited in our ability to store and retrieve memories accurately.
  • Emotional influences
  • Social influences

Why are cognitive biases relevant for speakers?

Cognitive biases impact you and everyone around you in all facets of life, including public speaking. Consider a presentation where a speaker attempts to deliver a persuasive speech to an audience. In an ideal world, the speaker’s brain would be operating rationally, and a perfect message would be delivered to audience members, who would hear, interpret, and digest that message rationally. But we do not live in an ideal world. Both the speaker and the audience members are susceptible to a range of cognitive biases.

How can cognitive biases affect speakers?

Because there are so many different cognitive biases, there are many ways that these biases can impact speakers before, during, and after a presentation. These include:

  • Biases may lead to poor choices in presentation content and structure.
  • Biases may lead to amplified nervousness and distorted perceptions while delivering a presentation.
  • Biases may lead a speaker to skewed judgments as to the success (or failure) of the presentation.
  • Biases may lead to a closed mind when it comes to seeking and listening to feedback.
  • Biases may lead novice speakers to overestimate their effectiveness as speakers.

How can cognitive biases affect audience members?

You may assume that your audience is thinking rationally, without bias. However, audience members are susceptible to cognitive biases too, and these present additional challenges for you as the speaker, including:

  • Biases may lead audience members to irrational conclusions about you before, during, and after your speech.
  • Biases may lead audience members to be irrationally resistant to persuasion.
  • Biases may lead audience members to interpret your message in ways that are very different than what you intended.
  • Biases may prevent audience members from fully participating or being “open” to learning.
  • Biases may even prevent some audience members from attending your presentation.

What can speakers do to mitigate or overcome cognitive biases?

Since each cognitive bias affects our thoughts and judgments in different ways, the strategies for mitigating them are unique. The first step is to be aware that the cognitive bias exists, and to understand its impact. You must be able to recognize it and describe it. This is why we are launching this important Six Minutes series!

Each article in this series will focus on one cognitive bias (or, in some cases, a set of tightly-related biases). We’ll define the cognitive bias, and provide examples to aid understanding. From there, we’ll discover how the cognitive bias affects you as a speaker and how it affects members of your audience. Finally, we’ll explore strategies and practical actions you can take to overcome, mitigate, or exploit the cognitive bias to become a more confident and more effective speaker.

Cognitive Bias Series

Next in the Cognitive Bias series…

In the next article of this series, we examine the Spotlight Effect and learn how this cognitive bias presents challenges and opportunities for you as a speaker.

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  1. Daniel Nielsen says:

    Yes, I would like to subscriber to your Six Minutes artciles.

    Thank you,

    Daniel Nielsen
    Bangkok, Thailand

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