Yes, “Presentation Bias” Can Lead Us Astray

…highly susceptible to “presentation bias” and, as a result, prone to shallow conventional thinking.
Noam Scheiber, The Brutal Ageism of Tech (from The New Republic)


I heard an interview about LBJ the other day, Terry Gross interviewing Bryan Cranston:  From Walter White To LBJ, Bryan Cranston Is A Master Of Transformation.  From the interview:

GROSS: Like there’s – he has to give a convention address, and, you know, he was not a stirring public speaker.

CRANSTON: I do. I touch upon – no, no, he’s not. He was very measured and laconic and controlled. And he did that on purpose because he thought it was going to present him in a way that was more presidential, more serious. And it drove his PR people crazy.

So, LBJ, was a less-than-engaging speaker — almost by design. He saved his “power” for his one-on-one conversations, which got so very much done.  (You might want to read this earlier blog post:  Your Master Communication Lesson of the Day; “One Phone Call at a Time” – Taught us by President Lyndon Baines Johnson).

This interview came to mind as I read the quote above – about “presentation bias.”

We’ve known for a long time that job and career success requires two set of skills. One set is the list of skills needed to actually do a good, effective job in the job one is hired to do. The other set is that set of skills that will get you that job in the first place.  You know:  “present yourself well” skills, like interview skills, making a good presentation skills…

But, the catch is this – a person can be good in the “present yourself well” skills and then be not-so-good in the actual get the job done skills. And, by the way, there is the obvious vice-versa – one can be terrific at the “get the job done well” skills and not be so good at the “present yourself well skills.”

Now, I’m a strong advocate of learning to make a good presentation.  I teach Speech — I lead training sessions on presentation skills. I coach speakers, and write speeches for leaders.  I believe that every communicator should communicate very well, in every sense and circumstance – in one-on-one circumstances, in interview circumstances, and in get-up-in-front-of-a-group-and-speak circumstances.  As Frank Luntz put it in Words that Work – It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear:

I do not believe there is something dishonorable about presenting a passionately held proposition in the most favorable light, while avoiding the self-sabotage of clumsy phrasing and dubious delivery.

But the danger for the decision makers is that when a person makes a better presentation than the next person, we think: “that person – the better presenter —  can do a better job that the other person.”  That may, or may not, be true.  In other words, our own presentation bias just might lead us astray.

I had not read or heard this phrase – “presentation bias” — before I read this article.  It is a new one for me.  And, it sounds like a good, smart, and needed warning.

So, here’s the lesson:
Make sure that that person making that good presentation can then deliver on the goods.  And, don’t just rule out the lesser presenter.  He or she might be the better bet.  Beware of your own “presentation bias.”




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