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How biased is your presentation?

4 min read


Oh, what tangled webs we weave when we practice to deceive. How much more tangled when the people we deceive are ourselves? In the book “Decisive, How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work,” Chip Heath and Dan Heath explore the complex dynamics behind the decisions we make and where those decisions lead.

“Decisive” challenges assumptions about how we process and use the immense amount of information we encounter daily, asking the question: Can we do better? In response, the Heath brothers offer fresh strategies and practical tools for making better choices in life and work, and introduce the WRAP process:

  • Widen your options
  • Reality Test Your Assumptions
  • Attain Some Distance
  • Prepare to Be Wrong

While the book grabbed my attention from page one, Chapter 5, “Consider the Opposite,” both resonated with and dared me to consider how something called “confirmation bias” may stop presenters from achieving their goals.

Confirmation bias, what are you talking about?

Confirmation bias is essentially a tendency to focus on only the information that confirms our initial assumptions or point of view — a little tendency with a big impact. As an illustration, the authors ask readers, “Imagine that a new restaurant has just opened near you. It serves your favorite kind of food, so you’re excited and hopeful. You search the restaurant’s reviews online, and the results show a handful of good reviews (four out of five stars) and a handful of poor ones (two stars). Which reviews would you read?”

The authors explain that research shows we would most likely read double the number of many four-star reviews as you would two-star. Why? We really want the restaurant to be great and are inclined to favor information that confirms our way of thinking over information that does not.

I’d ask you to stop for a moment and consider how confirmation bias might skew thinking and how that might affect our ability to fully understand a situation.

What does confirmation bias have to do with high-stakes presentations?

A lot! The quality of a great presentation is derived from the information shared. Influencing listeners and moving them to action hinges on your ability to understand the topic from a variety of viewpoints.

When crafting a presentation, do you look for information that supports your position (the five-star reviews) or do you attempt to understand other views? This doesn’t mean that you dismiss your opinions, beliefs or theories. It means that you are curious. You are willing to familiarize yourself with the topic or situation from your listener’s perspective. Let’s face it, sometimes we drink our own Kool-Aid and narrow our frame of reference. Understanding a situation as your listener broadens your perspective while allowing you to find common ground.

How do you break free from confirmation bias?

The bottom line is, if you haven’t encountered the opposition in your topic, you haven’t looked hard enough. The Heath brothers suggest that you start by sharing your thoughts. Actively seek out those who may disagree with you. Talk, read and listen for opposing views rather than creating them artificially. Be open to them, recognizing that the momentary discomfort of being challenged creates the opportunity for greater confidence because you will know what common ground you share with your listeners and where the land mines are buried.

Above all, you will come to the conversation with a more complete and deeper understanding of the topic that will resonate with your listeners and conclude with a resounding call to action.

Stephanie Scotti is a strategic communication adviser specializing in high-stake presentations. She has more than 25 years of coaching experience and eight years teaching presentation skills for Duke University. She has provided presentation coaching to over 3,000 individuals in professional practices, Fortune 500 companies, high-level government officials and international business executives. Learn more at her website and blog.