Is Narcissism Creeping into Your Presentations?

By Carmen Taran

In a recent research study, psychologists analyzed data obtained from 16,475 U.S. college students who were asked to complete the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) between 1982-2006. The survey contains questions such as “I will usually show off if I get the chance,” “I am an extraordinary person,” and “If I ruled the world, it would be a better place.”

Results show that the average score for college students in 2006 is 65% higher than it was in 1982, and 25% of respondents show higher-than-normal levels of narcissism, scoring high in vanity, entitlement, exhibitionism, and superiority. In fact, some students scored as high on the NPI as a celebrity would.

These findings prompted me to reflect on how concepts related to narcissism, self-esteem, and an exaggerated sense of self-worth may impact presentations.

Narcissism. What is your narcissism level and how often do you cultivate it? Those who have a me-centered mindset in presentations find it difficult to connect with an audience. I recently coached someone on virtual presentations and advised her to allow the audience to contribute more during the presentation; she refused, saying that the presentation “would get out of hand” and she would “not be in control.”

I’ve met many presenters smitten with the notion that they are in charge. While this can work to your advantage when presenting to very large audiences, for smaller crowds consider creating spaces for others to interact and take control. Ask them to get involved and shape your story. Give them the opportunity to play a part rather than simply watch the show unfold. This creates instant connection, which contributes to your cause and prevents you from falling in love with your own reflection.

Self-esteem. There is a fine line between self-esteem and narcissism. We operate in a culture that protects our self-esteem too much. In some schools, tug-of-war has been changed to tug-of-peace. Some teachers don’t use red pens any more to avoid hurting kids’ feelings. Lavender is considered a more “calming color” (seriously?).

We are grooming generations with an exaggerated sense of uniqueness, and excessive need for admiration. Self-esteem, instead of being used in its healthy scope to help you have a realistic sense of self and handle negative feedback, turns into an inflated sense of self-worth, and demand for special treatment.

This is why, in many social events, you see business professionals interact with others with the goal to self-actualize, to express and validate their own sense of self, with little regard for the other person. In presentations, this is detrimental. The more you focus on others, and validate their own self-worth, the more you benefit.

Modern presenters seem to have it backwards. Give your audience a voice whenever possible. Recognize that anyone in the room, regardless of how small or large, may have just as much wisdom as you do.

Trying too hard. I recently attended a stand-up comedy show in Monterey, CA. Despite the low-key, mediocre performance, one comedian said something that rang true to all 10 audience members. He remarked that applause felt great but its impact lasted for a split second before he met the audience’s gaze, silently announcing, “That was ok, now what?”

This is true in many presentations. Have you shown up in front of an audience who looks at you, closing their laptops (if you’re lucky), crossing their arms, leaning back, and silently announcing, “Amuse me”? Modern audiences seem to be changing from a dog mentality (responsive, eager) to a cat mentality (hard to impress, independent).

It is increasingly difficult to get and maintain attention. And to top it all off, look at the slogan for Gossip Girl, a TV primetime drama: “You’re nobody unless you’re talked about.” Ouch. No wonder presenters often think they have to try harder. But in this quest to please and receive social approval and attention, you may end up trying too hard.

Presentations these days are often pure theater. You may have been taught or asked to display emotions you don’t feel.  Dry content? Sound enthusiastic. Unrealistic promises? Brush through them with a confident voice. A question on the NPI is “I find it easy to manipulate people,” a question that gets increasingly high scores.

To you, it may matter what you say, but to an audience, what matters is what you mean, and they can quickly detect fake behavior and emotions. Reflect on the content you share and present only on those topics where fakery does not play a major part.

Why is it important to pay attention to narcissism, self-esteem, and avoiding fakery? Psychologists are confirming that ours is a society that finds it increasingly difficult to create connections. We live in fragmented worlds, tucked away safely in our condos, building and maintaining an insular existence, surrounded more often by seductive electronic devices rather than other people. But, while we enjoy autonomy and bohemian lifestyles, laced by high ceilings and hardwood floors, this unrestricted individualism prevents us from truly connecting with others.

More people have less friends (despite Facebook claims). More people live without a spouse than with one. This type of sealed lifestyle does not groom your skills to make connections in real life, skills that are instrumental in successful presentations. Consider giving up some of your seductive toys in favor of spending time with people and getting to know what others say and do in real life.

The NPI also contains questions such as “I wish somebody would someday write my biography.” If that wish ever crosses your mind, reflecting on the concepts included here may get you there faster.

About the Author:

Dr. Carmen Taran is an executive coach at Rexi Media, a company that teaches eye-opening presentation skills to professionals who wish to elevate the way they deliver presentations and ultimately do business. For more information about Rexi Media’s services, visit www.reximedia.com

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