As the 2009 World Series of Poker ended, there was little doubt that those at the final table excelled at picking up the slightest of "tells." They detected a discrepancy in communication, a misalignment, and placed their bets accordingly.
When we get excited or anxious, speak, or even listen, our eyes may widen or narrow, our brows may contract, our lips may tighten into a thin line or turn up ever so slightly at the corners. We may blink often or not at all, may raise an eyebrow or lower it. Each change, however slight, may affect messages delivered and received because we are sensitive to nonverbal cues. As an "umbrella" term and field of study, nonverbal communication includes the elements of dress and appearance as well as facial expression, gesture, eye focus, and stance. These last four are often collectively called "body language." In all interactions, facial expression and other nonverbal elements send signals that listeners interpret as if they are deciphering a code. In many ways, nonverbal elements are a code.
The tricky thing with facial expressions in particular is that we are often unaware of them and of the meaning they carry. Presenters watching videotapes of themselves are surprised to discover that they say "yes" while simultaneously making a frown that says "no." They are surprised to see that while they are assuring a questioner that data support a certain result, they have straightened their lower eyelids into a classic sign of anger.
Not all listeners will consciously notice such contradictions, perhaps. Those that don't will nevertheless feel a vague uneasiness, a subconscious anxiety that can lead to generalized distrust. Those that do notice will focus on the incongruity between verbal and nonverbal messages. Every discrepancy creates room for doubt. Listeners may wonder whether a speaker means "yes" or "no" when his voice says one thing and his face another. They may wonder whether a frown on a speaker's face grows from flawed data or from animosity toward the questioner. Even the unrecognized discrepancy creates a dissonance that decreases the speaker's effectiveness.
At times these expressions grow not from a hidden attitude toward audience or subject matter but from the presenter's own state of being. Perhaps a speaker's pinched, frowning face results from something physical—her shoes are too tight or she's suffering extreme jetlag. The expression may grow from an emotional or mental state unrelated to the occasion and message at hand—such as a worrisome scheduling conflict.
Its source hardly matters to an audience, however. Listeners will decode the expression, consciously or not, and the resulting interpretation may undermine the intended message.
Our challenge as presenters is to align words and expression to create an understanding as free as possible from the taint of doubt. How do you create such alignment?
Be aware of expressions you may habitually adopt independent of circumstance. Some people smile perpetually, no matter what their message. Others frown, always deep in thought. Yet others maintain an unrelenting deadpan, the look of a mummy frozen in time.
Try this experiment: Pick a place you go regularly, such as your morning coffee shop. For two weeks, plaster a grin on your face and make sure to talk while continuing to smile. Note the reactions you receive.
After those two weeks, enter with a neutral expression like you would for a normal meeting or presentation. Keep the expression in place. Are the reactions of others different?
If those we interact with on a limited basis can sense the difference in our non-verbal communication, clearly professional colleagues who may be actively looking for a change or discrepancy will sense one.
So get to know your face, its quirks and its possibilities. Experiment with facial expressions. Above all, practice and get responses. To improve as a presenter, it's essential that you create a cycle of learning, implementing, and rehearsing. You'll know you're succeeding when the face in the mirror aligns with the words you speak.
Do so and during your next presentation, go all in.