A recent study rated people’s attractiveness after they demonstrated an emotion. It turns out that I will find you attractive if your emotions are easy to read. If they’re hard to read, on the other hand, I’m not going to be so ready to like you.

The finding has interesting implications for public speakers and presenters. One of the issues I’ve noted over the years is that speakers who, in normal conversation, are personable, friendly, open, and relaxed, become emotional zombies when on stage.

What’s happening is that their fight-or-flight response to the stress of public speaking – stage fright, in other words – causes them to lose facial affect particularly, and affect in general. Besides, of course, the fear. They become stone-faced, in short.

Further, they’re usually not aware of this shift in their behavior. When I ask someone how they think they did in terms of smiling, connecting with the audience, and generally looking conversational, they’re usually convinced that they were as they usually are – their normal charming selves.

So we go to the tape. And they’re astonished. I don’t have to tell them – they can see it. “OMG, I look tragic!” Or, “I never cracked a smile once!” are typical reactions.

So if you’re a speaker, then get used to this idea. You think you’re being your normal friendly, charming self – but you’re not. You look like you’re acting the lead in a Greek tragedy.

What’s to be done? How can a speaker get those normal friendly feelings flowing again – and get them to show up in the face?

Basically, there are two ways. First of all, focus on how excited you are to be talking to such a great group of people like the audience in front of you. Get yourself into emotional shape, and prepare your attitude as carefully as you do your content. And when you’re in front of the audience, pick out one or two or three people to talk to. That feeling of having a conversation (even though there are a whole bunch of people listening in) helps make you appear more normally animated.

Second, you can simply practice smiling, nodding, and generally warming up your face at particular moments in your presentation. Make yourself a note in your speech text to SMILE HERE, as long as it’s not a place where you’re delivering bad news, and you may succeed in livening up your delivery.

Some people find working on their emotions difficult. Some people find it harder to work on manufacturing smiles. You should experiment to figure out what works best for you. But know that if you do nothing about your affect, you will most likely appear about as jolly as King Lear during his death scene. And you won’t even be aware of the tragedy you’re acting out.

It may seem odd to you to think about managing and practicing your emotions in the same way as you might manage or practice your content. But if you don’t, you will most certainly not show up the way you think you are.






  1. Sigh. I’ve been battling this for years. I’m a great speaker but my TM peers and others have consistently commented I don’t smile. It’s not natural for me. I’ll blame it on growing up idolizing Mr. Spock and Steven Wright…
    But I’ll give this tip a go and see what it does. Thanks!

    1. Thanks, Dave — there is always more than one way to skin a cat, as the saying goes. Perhaps you could make a point of your serious demeanor and use it for humor?

    2. I’ve had the same problem and have been working on it for quite a while now. Slowly getting there. So keep at it.
      Just been told today that I have such a warm and happy personality. That helps me to smile.

  2. This is great – could you link to the original research?

    I read an old 2007 study recently on how appearance is the primary thing that people judge you on when you go on stage – because we’re biased towards information that we receive first. The old first impression thing. So a lack of affect would totally screw that up. Thanks for this!

  3. One thing I’ve noticed over the years of speaking in public is that I change my emotions once I’m on stage. Even if it seems that I’m open and sincere, video records say that I’m wrong with this idea. In order to avoid being a zombie when delivering a speech, you need to work hard on your emotions, and the best key is to practice a lot. In addition, you need to deal with stressful factors that keep you unemotional (here is how to work on it: http://presentationskills.me/stressful-factors/)

    People would better perceive the information you’re giving if they feel comfortable with you. Thus, stay smiling and open. Don’t turn your brilliant speech in a boring monolog.

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