One of the things that unites all people regardless of culture and geography is the smile. A relaxed and natural smile is the universal language of happiness. It is also one of the characteristics of an effective public speaker. A smile will help you command the physical or virtual room with warmth, likeability, and credibility.
In public speaking and presentations, the smile is second only to eye contact in importance. A smile combined with good eye contact starts your speech off on the right foot to foster trust and authority.
Our brains are hard-wired to recognize smiles above and beyond any other facial expression of emotion—and we have thousands of those expressions.
Research shows that when you smile, you trigger someone else to smile, too. The mere act of smiling activates the neural circuits in the brain associated with happiness and wellbeing. It works for you as well as the other person who is mirroring your smile. It works in front of an audience of 10 or 1,000. And it works on video conferences and in real life.
According to the Facial Feedback Hypothesis, which goes all the way back to the time of Charles Darwin, a facial expression directly affects your emotional experience. And by expressing that emotion, you are intensifying it. That is, if you smile you are more likely to feel the sensation of happiness, and the confidence that comes with it.
A smile combined with good eye contact starts your speech off on the right foot to foster trust and authority.
You can simulate the neurochemical reaction of happiness by doing the pencil exercise. Simply take a pencil or a pen and put it between your teeth. Ask your audience to do the same. Hold it for at least 5 seconds. Activating the smile muscles will send happy signals to your brain.
Use the exercise as an ice breaker or to energize a dull Zoom meeting. You will hook a wayward audience and do them the favor of activating their neurons of happiness.
The act of smiling and seeing someone else smile is rewarding. It establishes a connection and opens the pathways for mutual understanding. So, if you want to connect more closely with your audience, and set yourself up for success, smile at the right places and at the right frequency. That means not doing it too much or too little—just right.
For meeting leaders, the simple incorporation of a smile alone or coupled with a head nod can make a huge difference in the level of engagement of participants. For attendees, periodic smiles or nods help convince colleagues that they are listening and comprehending what is being said.
When should you smile?
Here are some of the best moments to smile when speaking in person:
- At the top of the meeting to greet everyone and show you are happy to be there.
- When other people are speaking, and you want to acknowledge their ideas and show that you are listening.
- At the close of your talk to show appreciation for their attention.
Psychologists who study virtual meeting behavior recommend that participants smile 50% more often than they would in a physical meeting to “humanize” the interaction and demonstrate interest.
Not all smiles are created equal.
Experts in non-verbal communication have identified three types of smiles:
The Duchenne Smile is the natural smile. It is characterized by the movement of the muscles around the mouth, eyes, and cheeks. The eyes wrinkle and the brows rise. The name comes from the Duchenne de Boulogne, a 19th-century French neurologist who studied the physiology of emotion.
The Pan American Smile takes its name from the wooden and overly polite smile of flight attendants of the Golden Age of commercial aviation. It is also known as the “Botox smile” with voluntary movement around the mouth only. It denotes someone who is paid to be nice to you but is not really having a great day.
Down-turned, crooked, or pursed lips smile: It happens when the corners of the mouth are turned into a down-facing “u” shape. Or, when the lips are pursed tightly resulting in an awkward crooked smile. These smiles denote high stress, unhappiness, anger, tension, cynicism, and that the speaker may have something to hide.
Of the three types of smiles, the natural smile is clearly the winner for every occasion.
And there is a bonus reason to smile when doing a speech or presentation. Besides engaging the eyes and cheeks, a smile opens the nasal passages and activates the diaphragm to a fuller capacity. Your breathing improves. Speech is enhanced and your words come out clearer.
Whether you are in person, virtual or hybrid, the smile can become a powerful tool to heighten your own confidence and up-level your ability to command attention, sell your ideas, and persuade people to your point of view. Therefore, the smile you wear speaks volumes.