Other people’s facial expressions affect you physically, not just emotionally. According to one recent study, seeing someone smiling can lower the body’s cortisol and stress levels. As a speaker, though, you may not always get those benefits when you need them most to calm your nerves. Many of your meetings and presentations will kick off with a sea of blank stares facing back at you, and it’s your job to avoid showing how intimidated you are and keep sounding interesting. These four tips can help you do exactly that.
1. RECOGNIZE THAT IT’S (PROBABLY) NOT ABOUT YOU
First of all, don’t take blank stares personally. Sure, occasionally, it’s because the audience isn’t quite getting your presentation, but in most instances it’s probably got nothing to do with the substance of your talk. These days, we’re all constantly looking at screens–smartphones, tablets, computers, TVs. And how are we looking at them? With blank stares. Chances are, if you were the audience, you’d also be looking at the speaker with a blank stare, even if they were saying something really compelling. Consider it “resting listener face”–and try to brush it off.
2. CONSIDER THE CONTEXT
Still, some blank stares are intentional. This tactic is common among senior executives who often simply don’t want people to know what they’re thinking. That’s because they’re often under close scrutiny and believe there’s nothing to gain from wearing their emotions–however subtle–on their sleeves. A high-profile CEO once told me that he showed a brief moment of frustration with a business unit during a meeting. Three hours later, he got a phone call from an analyst who said he’d heard the CEO was going to divest from that business unit. Sometimes it pays to be non-reactive.
Other times your listeners’ blank expressions just mean that they’re synthesizing information, comparing what you’re saying with all the other stuff they know on the subject. There’s a lot information your listeners need to mentally piece together as they absorb your talk, so to help them, make sure you’re explaining how your point fits into the broader context.
3. KEEP DOING WHAT’S WORKING
It sometimes takes real effort to resist the impulse to change your behavior in the hope of getting a reaction. Don’t get louder. Don’t try to make a joke. Don’t go off on an unplanned tangent.
A few years ago, an HR leader sent a client to me for coaching. “He’s flailing around like a buffoon,” he said. The exec was trying too hard. The less his audience responded, the more he increased his expressiveness–more gestures, more animation, more smiles. Too focused on what the audience would think, he piled on more and more behaviors, rather than just maintaining the things that were already working.
To avoid this pitfall, turn inward. Focus on what you’re doing. Fundamentally, you need to recognize that you can’t control the audience’s reaction–whatever it may be. NFL coaches train their players to do this by getting them to practice with crowd noise playing from speakers. That’s because on game day, they need to focus on playing well, not on what the crowd is doing. You can adopt the same mentality when you’re speaking.
What you can control is your message and how you choose to deliver it. So if all those blank stares are freaking you out, try to shift your attention from them to you. Ultimately, your listeners’ stony-faced expressions won’t help you. All they’ll do is spike your cortisol levels.