What Does Your Face Show?

In my presentation skills seminars, I’ve always talked about the importance of facial expression. Recently I was reminded of how powerful facial expressions are by finding myself in the backdrop of the Fort Lauderdale shooting.

We had picked up our luggage in baggage claim and were waiting on the curb nearby for our shuttle.  Enjoying a beautiful warm day was interrupted by a group of people running toward us from the terminal we had just left, shouting, “Shooter! Run!” At first my wife and I were simply confused by the commotion, but the panic-stricken facial expressions said this was for real.  So we joined the crowd and ran to the next terminal.

The shooting was taking place in the baggage claim area that we had just left.  Needless to say, it was a tragic scene for many and a frightening experience for the rest of us.

As I think back on the afternoon, what sticks with me the most is the expressions on the faces of people running toward us.  They showed absolute panic and that they were running for their lives, not knowing where the shooter was and what his intentions were.  The faces as much as the words, “Shooter! Run!” motivated us to run as well.

As speakers, never underestimate the power of facial expression to communicate your ideas.  The face is the focal part of the body. The face is what the listener focuses on first.  Make sure the face reinforces the words that are spoken.  To hear a speaker say how much he or she is enjoying the audience while demonstrating nonverbally an unpleasant and stern look is disconcerting.  Make sure the facial expression matches the message being spoken.  Here are some ways of doing that.

Practice a part of your presentation in front of the mirror.  Be willing to stop and make adjustments when you note that your facial features do not match the idea you are expressing.

Ask someone to be an audience for you during a practice session.  Have that person make notes on when facial expression could be changed to underscore better your content.  While you have this person responding to your nonverbal, encourage that listener to give suggestions on when in the presentation you seem most pleasant and easy to listen to.

Pull a story or narrative from your presentation and exaggerate facial features as you tell that story and film it.  As you watch the playback, you might discover a different expression in this exaggerated format that you can insert when you deliver the actual speech.

On occasion, we have probably listened to someone talk when the person’s content does not match his or her facial expression.  You respond by telling the person there is an inconsistency in the verbal and nonverbal and end your comment with, “I can see it in your face.”

At other times, remembering a person’s face is crucial. An acquaintance of mine was holding some meetings at the University of Cincinnati and noticed a gentleman who had not been present at the previous meetings. As she went around the table introducing people, she said, “I’m so sorry. I know your face, but I can’t remember your name.”

In a pleasant voice, he smiled and said, “I’m Neil Armstrong.”

Steve Boyd
Steve Boyd
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. Steve won the Toastmasters International Speech Contest in 1970 and was chosen Outstanding Professor of the Year at NKU in 1984, among other awards and honors. Since retiring, he volunteers with nonprofits, spends time with family, travels, preaches occasionally, and enjoys reading and writing. Contact Steve at (859) 866-5693 or at steveboyd111@gmail.com.

1 Comment

  1. Craig Hadden says:

    So true about the face and message needing to match. Recently, I wrote a critique of a professionally-shot Toastmasters video, where the speaker smiled a great deal. Some aspects of the video were excellent, but sometimes the smiling was off-putting, and counter to the message (about public-speaking fear).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *