What public speakers should know about facial expressions

We know that physical cues are a key part of any presentation, but your facial expressions are especially crucial to your success. Follow this guidance to win over your audience.

What happens to your face when you speak in public?

A recent study rated people’s attractiveness after they demonstrated an emotion. It turns out that I will find you attractive if your emotions are easy to read. If they’re hard to read, on the other hand, I’m not going to be so ready to like you.

The finding has interesting implications for public speakers and presenters. Some speakers who, in normal conversation, are personable, friendly, open and relaxed will become emotional zombies when on stage.

What’s happening is that their fight-or-flight response to the stress of public speaking—stage fright, in other words—causes them to lose facial affect particularly, and overall demeanor in general. They become stone-faced, in short.

Further, they’re usually not aware of this shift in their behavior. When I ask someone how they think they did in terms of smiling, connecting with the audience, and generally looking conversational, they’re often convinced that they were their usual charming selves.

So, we go to the video—and they’re astonished. I don’t have to tell them; they can see it. “OMG, I look tragic!” or, “I never cracked a smile once!” are typical reactions.

If you’re a speaker, get used to this idea. You think you’re being your normal friendly, affable self-but you’re not. You look like you’re acting the lead in a Greek tragedy.

What’s to be done? How can a speaker get those normal friendly feelings flowing again—and get them to show up in the face?

Basically, there are two ways.

First, focus on how excited you are to be talking to such a great group of people as the audience in front of you. Get yourself into emotional shape, and prepare your attitude as carefully as you do your content.

Once you’re in front of the audience, pick out a few people to talk to. That feeling of having a conversation (even though a whole bunch of people are listening in) helps you appear more normally animated.

Second, you can simply practice smiling, nodding and generally warming up your face at particular moments in your presentation. Make yourself a note in your speech text [smile here], as long as it’s not a place where you’re delivering bad news, and you’ll liven up your delivery.

Some people find working on their emotions difficult; others find it hard to work on manufacturing smiles. You should experiment to figure out what works best for you. If you do nothing about your affect, you could appear about as jolly as King Lear during his death scene, and you won’t even be aware of the tragedy you’re acting out.

It may seem odd to you to think about managing and practicing your emotions as you might manage or practice your content, but if you don’t, you won’t come across the way you think you do.

A version of this article originally appeared on Public Words.

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