All humans instinctively watch each other’s faces to assess the person’s emotional state by what their expression is telling us. Are they emotionally present and interested, or expressionless and dispassionate?
Our face is remarkably communicative, able to deliver many emotions without uttering a single word. Moreover, unlike some forms of non-verbal communication, facial expressions are worldwide. The facial expressions of happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, fear, and disgust are the same across most nations.
When presenting to an audience, you will need to consider whether your facial expressions convey your intended message to your listeners.
For example, try smiling – a big smile – and say “I’m angry,” in the most ferocious voice you can. Your smile prevented you from having any impact on what you’re saying, and it’s almost impossible to convey the “angry” emotion when you’re smiling. Try the same with “I’m happy,” with your mouth downturned and a frown on your face. Apart from feeling a bit silly doing the exercise, you have just proven to yourself that your facial expression contradicted what you said.
Facial expressions typically match what we’re saying when having a conversation. However, for many, once in the limelight, all spontaneous expression flies out of the window. As they begin speaking, the discomfort becomes evident in their facial expressions, which might show in a grimace or by being stilted or solemn. This can lead to misinterpretation by the listeners of the speaker’s message, which can leave your audience feeling perplexed.
Here are some of the reasons why your facial expressions might be leaving your audience confused.
Tension: Causes wrong facial expressions
Tension – particularly in new speakers – is one of the leading causes of why the wrong facial expression can find itself plastered on your face. Novice presenters have been known to say, “It’s wonderful to be here,” yet they’re saying it through gritted teeth. Their nervousness has risen to the surface and is being shown on their face.
Your facial expressions, movements, gestures, and words need to correspond with what you’re saying. For example, if you’re talking about feeling happy, the matching facial expression should look happy by smiling. Equally, if you’re expressing how a painful moment left you feeling sad, then your speech needs to have matching facial expressions, perhaps a downturned mouth and a frown.
Doubt: Not believing in your message
If you don’t believe in what you’re telling your audience, you will convey this in your speech. If your listeners see any uncertainty in your face about your message, then you lose credibility and don’t appear sincere. They might feel as though you have taken them for fools and are being disrespectful. If this happens, then chances are you’re not going to win them over.
It’s tough to match your voice and body and send a consistent message when the message does not come from your heart. There’s only one way to avoid this! Make sure that you wholeheartedly believe in what you’re saying because it will show on your face as it becomes animated with the passion you feel in your heart.
Trying: Striving for perfection
Any speech, even a ten minute one, involves needing to fine-tune what you’re saying. With lots to remember (content, body language, and tone of voice), it’s easy to forget to smile and connect with your listeners. Try not to try too hard; your audience doesn’t know what you’re about to say, so deep breathe before you deliver your speech and relax, and enjoy what you’re saying. I often imagine myself floating on a cloud just before I get on stage, which helps me calm down and let my facial expressions flow to match my words.
As with anything, practising is what will help overcome any facial stiffness. Try videoing your speech and play it back. Another technique that I’ve found useful is to practice in front of a mirror and experiment with my facial expressions to see if they match what I’m saying.
Your facial expressions tell a story, so experiment and have fun doing it.
Samantha Richards is a Public Speaking and Communications Consultant and founder of ‘Building Voices Communication’. She is an award-winning public speaker who is the top female public speaking coach in Australia (Yahoo Finance). She is currently studying for a Diploma in Counselling and is passionate about helping others communicate confidently.