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The Pros and Cons of Audience Facial Expressions

“There is a link between facial expression and emotion, but it’s not a one-to-one kind of relationship as many once thought. There are many situations where emotion is experienced, yet no prototypic facial expression is displayed. And there are times when a facial expression appears with no corresponding emotion.” – L. Camras, Psychologist, DePaul University

After many years in the classroom, the conference room, and the ballroom, there are few things that can trigger a nervous reaction in me. For example, last week, when the laptop I was promised for my workshop never materialized, I shrugged it off. (See our post on always having a Plan B). I made the necessary calls to track it down, but when it was time to start the program, I moved on without being thrown off my game. (See also Charlotte’s previous post about decreasing the use of PowerPoint).

It’s a mystery why I could not apply that same coping mechanism to the other issue I encountered that morning: audience facial expressions – specifically, one audience member in particular. I kept getting an intense, thousand yard stare from a participant near the front of the room. It continued for three hours. The best analogy I can provide is Stanley from NBC’s The Office. The more I looked at him, the more agita I felt. I kept waiting for him to pull out his crossword puzzle book and check out.

I used every tactic in my bag of tricks: I made meaningful eye contact, I smiled, I spoke his name, and none of it made a dent. But here’s the catch: At the end of the workshop, “Stanley” approached me and asked for my card. He explained that he wanted me to run the workshop again for his entire team. What?! How could I have been so wrong about him?

Turns out, I could easily have misinterpreted his expression and assumed it was a direct response to my presentation. Psychologists are all over the map when it comes to facial expressions. Some researchers have found a correlation between the expression on a person’s face and their internal emotional state. Others have found no correlation at all. Given that reality, why not play the game in your favor rather than assume the worst? That’s what I am taking away from my experience the other day and hope you will too.

If you notice a negative vibe coming your way early in a speech or presentation, first remind yourself that there may not be a direct correlation between the scowl you see on the person’s face and their opinion of your presentation. Second, move past that individual and look for a friendly face that will put you back on firm footing. I’m reminded of that famous quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: “No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.”

– Barbara

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