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Unskilled and unaware of it – the “why” behind crap presentations?

January 14, 2010

Why are the majority of presentations so damn bad? This is a question asked by many people on an all too frequent basis. One of the conclusions I have arrived at is that people just don’t realise how bad they are… in fact they believe that they are already above average!

We are not good at rating our performance – despite what most people would like to believe about themselves – we are actually very, very poor at rating our own abilities. Be it in business, academics or personal life people seem to have a great deal of difficulty grappling with the inconvenient truth that they will often be below average in some area or another.

My thoughts on the matter are somewhat backed up in an experiment conducted by American psychologists Kruger and Dunning in 1999 in their paper “Unskilled and Unaware of it”. Using their Cornell students as test subjects they researched the disparity between their students’ perceived and actual performances in exams. Asked to rate their performance in comparison to that of their peers virtually none of the respondents rated their performance as below the 60th percentile – that is to say that everybody rated themselves as “above average” – A fact which is – rather unfortunately – impossible. As unpalatable as it may be mathematics dictates that half of any group must be below average.

Once the students’ perceived and actual performance were plotted out on a graph (below) it became apparent very quickly that students were absolutely abysmal at determining how they ranked against their peers. The lowest scoring 25% of the class had thought they had performed above average, and the highest performing 25% had totally underestimated their abilities… It would seem we just aren’t that good at recognising our comparative strengths and weaknesses.

So the chances are if you were to ask 100 people how they rated their ability to deliver presentations versus that of their peers, it is very likely that almost all of them would describe themselves “above average”… and hey if you are above average there is no need to learn how to improve your presentation skills right? And if you are pitching to an investor there is no need to seek presentation help, because you’re above average right? The study also suggests that those who ARE good at presenting are not easily able to identify themselves as being superior at it, therefore are not aware that they have a thing or two they could teach their colleagues.

So next time you are subjected to another boring presentation, remember… they probably don’t know that they are so bad… so go easy on them (either that or give them a verbal dressing down so they realise where they fit in terms of their ability, it’s your choice)

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