Advice for Public Speakers: "Just Do It!"

The pitfalls of making excuses before speaking in public.

Posted Sep 08, 2008

Imagine starting a term paper with the following statements:

"Before I begin, I just want to point out that I've had a cold for the past few days so my head's a little cloudy. Also, I didn't get much sleep the last few nights, so I'm really tired. Oh, and I had to kind of write this paper in a hurry. So if it's not the best thing in the world, please bear with me."

You wouldn't start a term paper like that, would you? So how come so many students begin their classroom speeches with similar statements?

Psychologists call these sorts of statements, Self-Handicapping. Self-handicapping is essentially excuse-making, but that which occurs before a performance begins. By conjuring these barriers to success, we attempt to establish a no-lose situation. After all, how can someone expect you to succeed with all of those obstacles in your way? And if you should succeed, then how amazing is it that you overcame so much adversity? Sounds great, huh?

Well, it turns out that self-handicapping has some downsides. In the context of speech-making, research on the Spotlight Effect suggests that people generally pay far less attention to us than we assume. So all of your little stutters and misstatements, which are so apparent to you, are most likely going unnoticed by your audience. One way to help them notice your mistakes, however, is to alert them to the fact that you'll be making them. This is kind of like if I were to tell you that I'll be saying the word "and" a lot in my talk. You'll probably notice a lot more "ands" than if I had said nothing at all. So in a very real sense, self-handicapping may actually cause your audience to perceive you as less competent than had you just delivered your speech without all the initial theatrics!

Self-handicapping can directly affect how your audience perceives you. Maybe even worse, however, is that self-handicapping can affect how you perform yourself. Imagine that two days before your speech, you were offered the chance to practice it in front of a smaller group of students. Because you don't want to lose the excuse of not having practiced much, you decline the offer. Of course, had you taken the opportunity to practice, you most likely would have done better when it came time to give the speech for real. Thus, in your attempt to preserve your safety net, you have actually prevented yourself from achieving your best.

These are but a few ways that self-handicapping can negatively influence our public performances. Unfortunately, self-handicapping appears to be something that is hard to give up. Even though I teach the subject of self-handicapping every semester to students in my psychology courses, I find myself doing it from time-to-time. It takes a lot of guts to face an audience without any protection-even when we are rationally aware that the protective device tends to cause more harm than it prevents. With that said, the next time you find yourself about to give a speech and wanting to tell your audience how nervous you are, don't. Just plunge right it and start delivering. It may not go as smoothly as you want, but at least you haven't done anything to sabotage yourself from the outset.

 (This post was coauthored by Ilan Shrira)