How Cognitive Bias Affects Effective Communication

Posted by Belinda Huckle  |  On October 8, 2018  |  In Presentation Training, Tips & Advice

As presenters, we like to think that we are delivering our message, assessing the audience’s reactions, and answering questions to our presentation, objectively. The truth is that we can never really be entirely impartial. Our brain is wired to take shortcuts to simplify information processing, which can lead us to make systematic errors. Psychologists call this phenomenon a cognitive bias. Virtually all of us, unconsciously, include cognitive bias in communication. Including when we present.

In this blog post, we’ll explore the different types of cognitive biases in business communication, examples in action, and tips to avoid biases when presenting.

What is Cognitive Bias?

A cognitive bias is a type of error in decision making and thinking which occurs when our perception of a situation is skewed by factors like preferences, beliefs and personal experiences. Our brain uses memories and familiar patterns to take mental shortcuts, also called heuristics, to reach what seems to be a reasonable conclusion, despite there being conflicting information or perspectives.

What are the implications of cognitive bias on business communication? We know that information delivered in meetings and presentations can have far-reaching business consequences. Cognitive biases can impede your objective reasoning as a speaker, as well as confidence levels and the delivery of your message. Furthermore, the audience’s reaction may be skewed by their perception of you as a speaker, or of your message.

What are the Causes of Cognitive Bias?

There are many factors which can cause an individual to experience cognitive biases. Typically, it is a combination of learned behaviours and value sets, originating from the individual’s social, cultural and personal settings. The more prevalent influences seen in business communication include:

  • Social and cultural pressure
  • Professional background
  • Education
  • Motivations in regard to perceived success or failure
  • Emotions

By understanding how to identify and manage cognitive bias in communication, you can reduce their effect upon your meetings, negotiations, discussions and presentations.

Types of Cognitive Biases in Communication with Examples

Let’s take a look at eight of the most common cognitive biases you’ll observe in a corporate setting:

1. Spotlight Effect: Are They Judging Me?

Businessman feeling alone after a presentation is a symptom of cognitive bias in communication

This tendency occurs when you feel your listeners are judging you, more than they really are. You might feel the audience is judging you based on what you’re saying, your age, accent or how you’re dressed. This could result in distractions, mumbled words and a shock to your confidence due to the paranoia of feeling like your every word is up for scrutiny.

If, for example, you’re having a bad hair day on the day you’re scheduled to present a report to a client, you may think that everyone in the room is staring at your hair. This could affect your confidence when presenting or lead you to use your computer or lectern as a ‘screen’ to avoid your hair being scrutinised. The truth is, not all eyes are on your hair! Chances are people in your audience are experiencing the spotlight effect too, for different reasons.

2. Confirmation Bias: Validating Your Fears

Confirmation bias occurs when you attempt to validate your concerns about the audience’s opinion of you, and can sometimes be driven by fear of disapproval.

If you’re nervous during a sales pitch, for example, you might scan the room for signs of boredom, and focus solely upon the individual who is yawning or distracted. Alternatively, you may only take notice of the single audience member who’s engaged, rather than encouraging other listeners to pay attention.

To mitigate the impact of this cognitive bias on your speaking, focus your attention on the entire audience. If someone isn’t engaged you can then change your tone or ask a question to regain their attention.

3. Planning Fallacy: Unrealistic Promises

Over-promising on a handshake is a cognitive bias in communication

In business, this cognitive bias commonly appears in relation to internal projects, client deadlines and deliverables. Planning fallacies create unrealistic expectations and can be detrimental to your stakeholder or client relationships, as well as to your reputation, if left unchecked.

Collective opinion can also deter individuals from speaking up against over-optimistic planning. For instance, this study found that planning fallacy was more likely to occur during group discussions and collaborative planning.

To steer clear of planning fallacy, use past experiences or a logical forecast to plan your projects, timelines and deliverables.

4. Illusion of Transparency: They Can Read My Mind!

The illusion of transparency occurs when professionals feel their audience can see through their external expression and know they’re feeling nervous or unprepared. This is because we rely too heavily on our own egocentric bias when assessing the perspectives of others. Consequently, we think because we know what we’re feeling, so does everyone else.

Just remember that you seem far more prepared and composed than you give yourself credit for. If you’re in doubt, ask someone to video you delivering a presentation. You’ll be amazed at how much better you come across than you think you do! So just smile and remind yourself that the audience can’t read your mind.

5. Curse of Knowledge: Don’t Assume They Know Because You Know

Presenter showing cognitive bias in communication

If a presenter uses sweeping general language to explain specialist concepts, they are cursed by their own knowledge. They have spent years accumulating their experience, and assume that others are able to follow a simplified casual explanation.

This cognitive bias in communication can particularly hinder the explanation of services and products. Likewise, senior staff may fall into the trap of assuming that juniors understand more concepts than they actually do. In a business presentation, your curse of knowledge could leave listeners confused and unable to digest the logic of the presentation.

Remember to take a step back and tailor your content to your audience’s level of knowledge. You can also request feedback to help spot sections that weren’t quite clear. This will help you think like your audience and improve over time.

6. Halo Effect: If It Looks Good, It Must Be Good

The Halo Effect is a cognitive bias in which an audience rates attractive, confident or appealing individuals as ‘knowledgeable’ due to their pleasing presence. It’s an assumption which leads us to conclude that what looks good, must also be good.

You may find the presenter who is dressed the best, or who has the most attractive face is better received in sales pitches. If you find you’re consistently a victim of poor first impressions, reflect upon your image and mood on those occasions. Ask yourself questions like:

  • Did your clothes suit the occasion?
  • How often did you smile?
  • Was your personal hygiene on point?
  • Did you project and speak with confidence?

Most important is how you felt walking into the room. If you stand up to present feeling smart, confident and positive, you’re much more likely to be received well.

7. Courtesy Bias: Saying What They Want To Hear

Presenter potentially showing cognitive bias in communication

A courtesy bias is a tendency for presenters and speakers to give answers that they ‘think’ their audience wants to hear. Instead of saying what is right or reasonable, they’ll give preference to what they think is socially acceptable or desirable in the given context.

We can see this in action during sales pitches particularly. You might misrepresent or embellish your product while presenting, leading to problems down the track when your clients realise what you said wasn’t entirely true.

The best way to overcome courtesy bias is to remind yourself that a pleasing answer may prevent an uncomfortable situation in the short-term, but cause big complications later.

8. Imposter Syndrome: What Do You Really Know?

The imposter syndrome isn’t technically a cognitive bias, but it does impact the ability of presenters and audiences to communicate effectively.

There are two sides to this: One is where a person is on a toxic quest to prove themselves as highly knowledgeable and the other is where a person feels he/she is not competent enough to deservingly be a part of the crowd.

As a high achiever, you can often suffer from the first type in the quest to be seen as an absolute expert on a subject. So you may try to learn everything on a topic or service. This obsession with perfection, for instance, could cause your visual aids to be crammed with unnecessary detail. Or you may constantly worry that not being able to answer a question will diminish your authority as an expert.

How can you overcome this in business communication? If there is something you don’t know, gracefully admit it and promise to come back to them later with more information.

If you’re on the other side of imposter syndrome – where you feel you don’t have a right to ‘have a seat at the table’ – you may be held back by the fear of being ‘found out’. As a result, you may not speak up at meetings or volunteer to deliver presentations.

The key to overcoming this type of imposter syndrome is to focus on the value your contribution will provide at the meeting. Say only what is necessary to get the message across, and simply remember that you wouldn’t be invited to the meeting in the first place if you didn’t belong at the table.

Tips to Avoid Cognitive Bias in Presentations

Cognitive biases are an innate part of human psychology, but there are some simple strategies you can use to avoid them frequently affecting your communication.

  • Take a Step Back: Before your presentation, consider what preconceived notions you or your audience may have about the topic and your expertise, as well as your own selves!
  • Don’t Make Assumptions: Challenge your own preconceived opinions about your audience or the subject.
  • Control Your Nerves: Don’t permit your nerves to take over. When your nerves control the presentation, you run the risk of getting distracted, mumbling and reading too far into the audience’s engagement.
  • Get Feedback: Ask your listeners or a business communication specialist for feedback on the presentation, perhaps by handing out a survey when you’ve finished speaking. Often, anonymous feedback is the best way to encourage people to be honest. This will help you continue to improve.

It’s also important to remember that it is normal for cognitive biases to appear. Your main goal should be to ensure that you are aware when they’re affecting your presentations, and are able to take back control of your communication. Good luck!

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Belinda Huckle

Written By Belinda Huckle

Co-Founder & Managing Director

Read Bio

Belinda is the Co-Founder and Managing Director of SecondNature International. With a determination to drive a paradigm shift in the delivery of presentation skills training both In-Person and Online, she is a strong advocate of a more personal and sustainable presentation skills training methodology.

Belinda believes that people don’t have to change who they are to be the presenter they want to be. So she developed a coaching approach that harnesses people’s unique personality to build their own authentic presentation style and personal brand.

She has helped to transform the presentation skills of people around the world in an A-Z of organisations including Amazon, BBC, Brother, BT, CocaCola, DHL, EE, ESRI, IpsosMORI, Heineken, MARS Inc., Moody’s, Moonpig, Nationwide, Pfizer, Publicis Groupe, Roche, Savills, Triumph and Walmart – to name just a few.

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