Facial expressions matter when presenting, here’s why

Nicole Lowenbraun

Written by

Nicole Lowenbraun

About 8 years ago, while visiting my parents in New Jersey for the weekend, I got bored enough to peruse my mother’s Prevention magazine. Actress Amy Brenneman of ABC’s “Private Practice” was being interviewed on her beauty secrets. Boring.

As a speaker coach, what did interest me were her comments on Botox. She boldly admitted having tried it and said she probably wouldn’t do it again. Why? “I’ve experimented … but Botox kind of freaked me out because I couldn’t move my face. Isn’t it my job to make facial expressions?”

Yes, Amy, yes, it is.

Whether on camera, on stage presenting, or communicating in a meeting, your facial expressions send messages that are just as important as the content itself. They give you the chance to enhance your point, distract from it, or confuse the heck out of your audience.

Here are some key concepts to keep in mind when it comes to facial expressions.

1. You need your face and the movements it makes

A flat affect, just like a monotone voice will be interpreted as a lack of passion, whether the message is positive or negative.

Facial expressions create dynamism. They give the impression that you stand behind your ideas and believe in them.

Recent research shows that when you use your face, specifically the little lines around your eyes (known as Duchenne markers) you’re perceived as conveying more intense and sincere emotions.

facial expressions matter - mask

2. Your facial expressions must match your content

If you say, “I’m so excited about these new initiatives!” your face better tell the same story.

I worked with a senior HR executive at a tech company a few years back. She exuded warmth and I got the sense she really cared about her employees.

When it came time to fire one, she wasn’t happy about it. The directive came from the top down and she disagreed with the decision. To soften the blow, she delivered the news with a smiley, “We’re letting you go.” It was not received well.

The woman being forced out responded with, “F you and your smile.” Yikes. While well-intentioned, my client’s facial expression didn’t match the content and was interpreted as belittling and condescending.

3. It’s okay to smile at work

Of course, when the content allows and it’s appropriate, smiling is wonderful.

I’ve worked with too many people who fear smiling will rob them of their authority in the workplace. Smiling doesn’t make you look weak — it makes you look approachable. And NOT smiling can be interpreted as cold.

facial expressions matter - smile

4. Pay attention to your audience’s facial expressions

Your audience’s facial expressions are just as important to pay attention to as your own.

If you took Public Speaking 101 you were probably taught to “scan the room.” Guess what? It’s not a great strategy for building meaningful connections, and it prevents you from reading the faces of your audience members.

How do you know if they’re smiling and nodding in agreement with your point or if they’re giving you a skeptical reaction? Reading faces ensures that you can respond appropriately.

Try saying, “I’m so glad to see you all agree” or “You might be questioning my methods and I understand why. Let me tell you why this is the best way to go.”

If you’re scanning the room, you won’t be able to read and adjust to the audience’s needs.

Side note: When nerves kick in, we tend to focus our attention on the people who are smiling and nodding. While it’s great that you notice facial expressions (it means you’re paying attention and attempting to empathize with your audience), know that some people are just … smilers and nodders.

You still need to speak to the skeptics in the room.

Oh, also, “Resting bitch face” (RBF) — scientists say it’s a real thing.

I had a former colleague who was passionate, loud, and dynamic on stage. While delivering a speech, he was thrown off by a scowling guy in the front row. Much to my colleague’s surprise, Scowling Guy approached him post speech to say how much he loved the talk and to pepper him with questions.

How could this be? Simple. Scowling Guy had RBF. He didn’t disagree or disapprove. He just looked that way.

There are people in your audience whose facial expressions will appear cold, skeptical, even nasty. While you certainly need to read the audience’s faces, take their reactions with a grain of salt.

If you need to confirm the meaning behind their facial expressions, just ask. “I’m sensing some concern, what questions do you have?” Or “Please let me know if we’re not all in agreement on this.”

facial expressions matter - remote video

5. Facial expressions on video are extremely important

When communicating remotely on camera, note that the only tools you have to sound convincing and sincere are your voice and your facial expressions.

Your audience can’t see your entire body, they don’t have direct in-person eye contact to form a connection, and they can rarely see gestures because of the small allotted space. This means that facial expressions can go a long way in persuading your audience.


Presenting principles


6. Practice in front of a mirror

Not sure what your face is doing when you’re speaking? Try practicing in front of a mirror.

As a coach, I don’t always recommend using mirrors. They can be distracting, and it’s important that you FEEL yourself using good public speaking techniques in order to solidify them as your new normal.

In real life, you won’t get that immediate feedback. But until you are able to internalize your facial expressions, a mirror is a great tool. You have to see what your face is doing in order to make necessary changes. I suggest practicing while on a conference call having a real conversation, but when no one can see you.

You have important ideas to convey. Don’t allow your facial expressions to diminish your message. Use them as a tool to solidify your point. And perhaps avoid the botulism injections.


Speaker coaching


In-line illustrations by Ash Oat

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