pluralistic ignorance

I’m a bit of a fan of the podcast You Are Not So Smart. It’s a classily understated podcast based on interviews and grown up conversations with experts. (Lots of people say they are experts, David McRaney talks to the best, trust me!) One recent episode, on something called “Pluralistic ignorance” really struck home for a number of reasons.

odd one out in the presentation's audience

The reason that relates to making better presentations is the one I want to talk about here. But let’s start with a definition. At the risk of over-simplifying, it’s the idea that individuals within groups are ignorant of the plurality of beliefs of the other people in that group. They might hold beliefs different from the ‘official’ belief of the group but they don’t know that lots of other people believe differently too. Each individual thinks that everyone else in the group believes the group’s official belief and that they – and they alone – are deviant.

What has pluralistic ignorance to do with presentations?

I’ll bet you’ve felt something like this at a presentation… the presenter stands there and delivers with superb aplomb and a lot of style. But something is wrong. They say something you don’t understand. A quick glance around the room (furtively, just in case) confirms your fears. Everyone else is nodding to the sage wisdom of the presenter – obviously they understand the presentation. You’re the only one that doesn’t.

So no one asks WTF you’re talking about because they all think everyone else already knows the answer.

Don’t tell me you’ve never done it… furtively glanced around the room to see if you’re the odd one out, hoping no one notices that you’re doing that. Just think about it for a moment – ‘cos that means anyone else who doesn’t get it will also be trying hard not to be noticed.

Confused woman watching a presentation

At live training sessions, I’ve never asked the question about this without getting pretty much everyone’s hands up in response.

As a presenter, it’s a serious problem, ‘cos it can all too easily look from the stage as though everyone is with you… and to the audience it looks like they’re the odd one out, even though they’re not.

So what is a poor presenter to do?

Firstly, remember that just because your audience looks like they’re okay with your presentation doesn’t mean they are! Sometimes just having this thought at the back of your head will make you more awake to the issue and less likely to fall into the traps in involves.

Secondly, do the obvious thing and ask for feedback. Check that people know what you’re talking about by asking them. The problem is that people might not confess that they’re uncertain even at this point, so you need to make sure you phrase a question in a way that encourages engagement. Don’t just ask “Does everyone know what Stones are?” (for the record they’re a unit of measurement for weight). Instead, consider asking “Am I the only one old enough to remember using Stones? Can someone remind me of the conversion for Stones to Kilos?”. That way, people laugh, their guards are down and it becomes a problem for them to solve for/with you rather than a problem that they’ve got themselves.

This is a great way to recover when you’ve not managed to get the third option (below) built into your presentation!

Einstein - mad presenter

Thirdly, give the answers to questions in the questions themselves. I often use an image of Einstein in my presentations and I don’t say “Do we all know who this is?”. Instead, I say “Does anyone not recognise the image of Einstein?”. That way, even if they don’t recognise him from the image on the slide, they’re now the proud owners of the knowledge you need them to have. (Of course, if they’ve not heard of Einstein you’ve got another problem! 🙂 )

Trust me – this one absolutely works, although it’s a bit of extra work for you as the presenter.

Fourthly you’ve got the ultimate in nuclear options. Ask yourself (honestly!!!) if the people who don’t understand are all that important. If they’re chairfillers you might decide that it’s more important to keep your targeted decision makers in your sites and simply sacrifice the wider audience.

Brutal, I know…

One Comment

  1. Very useful article Simon thank you yet again!

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