Giving a talk? Know your illusion of transparency

By Suhas Vijayakumar on May 29, 2017

I’ve been a public speaking junkie for the better half of my life so far. I’ve mostly interacted with high schoolers. And I absolutely love it. I like the attention that I get when I’m in front of them, when they come and want to have a chat after the talk, when they contact me a year later to tell me how they are doing, I like the whole deal. And along the way the two most important things that have helped me get better are the following:

  1. Practice
  2. Illusion of transparency

While [1] seems like an obvious advice, I’ll circle back to it in the end. So, let’s talk about the illusion of transparency first.

The feeling that you get when you are standing in front of an audience, and just when you introduce yourself your brain goes, “Man, if they haven’t figured out how nervous I am because of my about-to-explode heart, they must surely be able to hear how nervous I am now that I’ve opened my mouth and produced sound” is a very good example of illusion of transparency. It’s this notion that you have about how easy it is for other people to predict your feelings merely from you voice, your gestures, or even just by looking at you. The fact is that they don’t. They can’t.</p>

study by Kenneth Savitsky and Thomas Gilovich showed exactly this. What’s even better is that, when people were informed about this illusion, they seemed to cope well with their anxiety, which in turn, helped them give better talks. Here’s a part of the excerpt that the informed participants read before their talk -

Those speaking feel that their nervousness is transparent, but in reality their feelings are not so apparent to observers. This happens because our own emotional experience can be so strong, we are sure our emotions ‘‘leak out.’’ In fact, observers aren’t as good at picking up on a speaker’s emotional state as we tend to expect. So, while you might be so nervous you’re convinced that everyone can tell how nervous you are, in reality that’s very rarely the case.

Now that you know, this should help in preparing for your next talk. But before you sigh a sigh-of-relief, you should also take notice that the illusion also manifests in another form. This one is more harmful even for a rationally aware public speaker. Boaz Keysar and Anne Henly showed that because of the illusion of transparency, we tend to overestimate how well others understand us.

Yes, this can be problematic. So, practice.

And by practice, I don’t mean scroll through your slides/notes/cards. Nor do I mean practice in your head, or in front of a mirror [^1]. Rather, record yourself giving the talk with a camera. It does feel weird at first. But having done this a few times, I’ve noticed how my body language was sometimes contradictory to what I was saying, or how I don’t use my hands nearly enough in a talk when compared to explaining the same thing to a friend, how I pronounce certain words differently, or how I used to look at my slides way more than I was supposed to. Along with highlighting these shortcomings, you will also notice that your nervousness is not very apparent on camera [^2].

Now that you know that others others can’t tell if you’re nervous, relax, read this mini review about spotlight effect and illusion of transparency and make those notes extra explicit. Get your phone, press record and take it from there.


[^1] At least this doesn’t work for me because I cannot pay attention to what to say next, while trying to notice all of the mistakes from the line I just said.

[^2] And if you think you’re being hyper-active or overdoing an action, you’ll soon notice that on camera (and to others) it just appears as excitement and almost nothing ever appears as an exaggeration.


Practice and awareness of illusion of transparency are not the only tricks I use. But these were definitely the ones that took very little effort to maximize gains.

Tags: advice