The speaker walks to the lectern, grim-faced. What’s your response?
Seems like it’s going to be a long evening, doesn't it?
As I’m fond of saying to groups I speak to, “Whatever your abilities or topic, the chances are you don’t smile enough when you speak.” And I certainly include myself in that category of presenters. (Want maximum executive presence and influence? Download my free cheat sheet, "12 Easy Ways to Achieve Presence and Charisma.")
Why We Don’t Smile Enough When We Speak
Speaking in public should be an all-around enjoyable experience for audience and speaker alike. So why isn’t it? Sure, it can be anxiety-provoking and nerve-wracking for the presenter, though it needn’t be. And there’s simply no excuse for that speaker to make it a painful experience for audience members. Facial expressions, for instance, easily give away nerves or a negative outlook. Here's a way to calm your nerves before speaking, even if you have just 5 minutes to spare!
From a speaker’s perspective, speeches can represent something to be avoided rather than embraced for three principal reasons. The first is the extreme self-consciousness that speaking situations create. And the second is the misguided assumption that these occasions represent something out of the ordinary in which the speaker has to rise to impossible standards of excellence. When the stakes are high like this, here are 10 ways to stay fully focused when speaking.
Yet the truth is, speaking in public is only slightly different from the types of “talking” we do every day: in conversations, phone chats, gossiping, gathering around the water cooler, and other types of speaking we label interpersonal communication. Even more important is the fact that there really isn’t anything “out of the ordinary” about public speaking at all.
Sociologist Erving Goffman recognized this and made it a central idea in his 1959 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Goffman pointed out that we give a series of performances day in and day out, each one corresponding to the role required of us and relevant to the people and situation we share such moments with: spouses, colleagues, old friends, customers, and so on.
The third reason we dread presenting is a mindset that makes us view public speaking appearances as dangerous situations. And so we respond with speaking anxiety and fear—hardly reactions that will produce a smile! The truth, of course, is that we face precious few audiences armed with spears and out for our blood. Audience members almost always want to be present, and they’re genuinely looking for something valuable from our talks. The opportunity to share something of mutual interest with others is an activity to be relished. It should produce not a look of grimness or fear, but, yes, a smile!
What You Can Do About It
Are you ready, then, to let your nonverbal communication get in synch with reality? Or to ask this another way: would you like your body language to help create the conditions for success when you speak? Need help in this area? Here are 6 skills-building exercises for effective body language.
If you would, remind yourself to smile.
One of the easiest ways to do this is to write in big letters at the top of your note cards or speaker notes in PowerPoint or Keynote: SMILE! These notes are for your eyes only, after all. Photos of your kids or your pet are also ready to adorn your laptop or presentation folder, to help coax a grin from your Scrooge-like countenance.
Here’s another foolproof way to gain warmth and delight in your speaking assignment: look at your audience members, giving them a slight smile that recognizes a communication bond. Nervous speakers sometimes avoid looking at listeners because of their fear. But did you ever try smiling at a wall and expecting anything in return?
The Health Benefits of Smiling
And if the value of a more successful speech or presentation isn’t enough to convince you, consider the benefits of smiling that go beyond public speaking to encompass your overall well-being:
“Stress Busting Smiles” is a Wall Street Journal article that lists some of ways smiling is good for your health. Did you know, for instance, that wearing a smile slows down the heart and reduces stress? That it can make you happier? That it will make you feel “not threatened” (remember those non-spear-carrying audiences)? That it helps relieve depression and allows you to form more positive connections with other people—think of how valuable that in itself is with regard to public speaking!
Finally, smiling helps evoke a similar neural response in people who see us smile, as if they were smiling themselves. In other words, why not make your audience feel good about your presentation rather than neutral or worse?
If smiling brings all of these benefits, will laughing produce similar or even greater results? Apparently it will, as this article tells us:
Because a chuckle increases blood flow, a life full of laughter is a healthy one. A 2006 study found that laughing in response to a light-hearted movie (compared to the reaction to watching a stressful one) increased blood flow about the same amount as light exercise or cholesterol-lowing drugs would, Scientific American reported.
So give your audience the smiles you and they deserve. You'll have greater success in your next speech, presentation, lecture, or meeting. See you around the fun-house!
- Most speakers don't smile enough to engage and influence audiences.
- Public speaking should be an enjoyable experience, not a nerve-wracking one.
- We perform all day long—what's different about speeches or presentations?
- Smiling reduces stress and helps create positive connections with others.
- Audiences will feel better about your talk and like you more!