Human beings are social animals. Exceptionally subtle changes in facial expression can convey huge amounts of information. Fights and love affairs have turned on the tiniest of eye movements, deals have been lost because of perceived slurs in the twitch of an eye and presenters have ground to a halt believing the audience think they are boring. An audience watching a presentation are not using the same social signalling to the speaker as they would do if speaking one to one.
In one to one interactions, facial expression may contribute 90% of meaning. Stand in front of the mirror and say, “I love you.” Now repeat it with your eyes narrowed and again whilst shaking your head ever so slightly. Subtle facial expression hugely change the perceived meaning of words. We constantly scan faces for these clues in routine social interactions. An audience that appears to show facial signs of boredom, anger, disinterest, confusion, inappropriate amusement or just blankness can be exceptionally distracting for a presenter scanning for those clues. Presenting is not a routine social interaction.
Ignore it, it means nothing. The audience are not in the same social circumstance as you. They are watching, not participating in the presentation. When watching TV we have no need for the TV to feel good about us for it to continue to broadcast. When watch a presentation, the audience are similarly in receive, not broadcast mode. Facial expression is therefore relaxed, neutral or even turned off. As a presenter, often anxious for feedback, ignore these expressions, they mean nothing.
“What if they are, actually bored or angry?” the anxious presenter will ask. Remember that many factors will influence a person’s visage. They may be worried about their mother in hospital, your presentation has challenged them to consider a patient from their past or they have been on a four day stretch of night shift. Or they may simply be listening with their face in “neutral”. Don’t be put off by uninformed perception.
The response of an engaged presenter to this depends on many factors. Actively directing your speech and eye contact may engage an audience member who appears distracted. Even a simple smile may break the reverie. If this fails, remember the audience as a whole is more important than a single individual and don’t be distracted yourself. Facial expression can be complex, unintended or even just resting.
If it is everyone in the room, that’s a different matter…