Embracing ‘The Pratfall Effect’

peelI once attended a lecture by a prominent academic that was interrupted by a ringing cellphone. That’s jarring, but this was made even more so by the fact that the phone just kept ringing — and ringing.  Finally, the speaker realized that it was her own phone ringing, and ran offstage to find her handbag and shut it off.

We all had a good laugh. And, although I was interested in the content of the lecture from the outset, I was even more emotionally engaged after seeing the speaker dash off the stage in embarrassment.

There’s a name for the psychological phenomenon behind those warm feelings: The Pratfall Effect.  Research shows that we actually like people more after they goof up a little bit, compared with those who always seem perfect.

There’s a catch: You have to be perceived as likable and competent to begin with, in order for your goof to count in your favor.  In other words, you can’t cover up for being unprepared by spilling a cup of coffee on your laptop. But mistakes not only aren’t fatal, they can sometimes be beneficial.

In our February cover story, “Embracing Mistakes” we wrote about how presenters who talk openly about their mistakes can add more value to a meeting than those who just talked about their successes.

And it turns out that actually making mistakes at meetings isn’t anything to lose sleep over, either.

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