They train six days a week for seven hours a day with blisters, strained tendons, and the constant pressure to be perfect.  And after all that pain and sacrifice, only five athletes get to compete.  Can you imagine working that hard on a presentation only to be told at the last minute that there’s been a change in plans and your boss is going to do the presentation instead?

Just in case you’ve been hiking the Inca Trail in Peru these last few weeks and missed the “Not Impressed” face of McKayla Maroney as she stood on the medal stand wearing silver instead of gold, then you also missed the hilarious send-up on Tumblr, so here is a sample (I just can’t force myself to use the loathsome and ubiquitous word “meme,” but that’s the interweb’s term for trending items like this one). Now you’re all caught up.

This story got me wondering what it would be like to have that face staring back at me from the audience.  And it reminded me of the conflicting research on human facial expressions. The findings are too sciencey for my pay grade, but suffice it to say it has to do with our neural circuitry. The bottom line is, speakers are better off not trying to read every facial expression, but rather take the pulse of the room in other ways.  Here are three:

  1. If you sense that your audience might be confused, transition back to the “what” of your topic. The what is more important to achieve full understanding of your key messages than the who, the why, or the how.
  2. If you get the distinct feeling that your audience is skeptical, give them more of the “why” and “how.” Once people understand your purpose, they then transition to WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) and you need to provide the reason why they should listen to you.
  3. If you think your audience is disengaged, ask a question that will perk them up and make them re-focus. When you ask your question, slow down your pace and even lower your voice (great tricks for re-connecting).  A good question will elicit a quick answer from your audience. A bad one will just get you off track. Try something like, “Now I’m guessing at this point you’re wondering how you will use this information to get more customers, am I right?”  Or, “Would you like to know how to use this information in your organization?”

Whatever you do, try to avoid internalizing the Maroney Vexation from row three.  Keep your positive, knowledgeable tone and move on.  After all, you’re up there. Might as well assume that it’s because you made the team.

– Barbara