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Harnessing the Power of Facial Expression and Eye Contact

Researchers have found that how you communicate -- what you look like and how you sound -- can be far more important than what you say when it comes to getting your message across.

In a past article, Message Not Important? Don''t Believe It, we criticized the inaccurate interpretation of research out of UCLA that found that when what is communicated is out of alignment with how it is communicated, the nonverbal cues, such as tone of voice, eye movement, posture, hand gestures and facial expressions, overwhelm what is verbalized. Albert Mehrabian''s study found that nonverbal communication accounted for 93 percent of a presenter''s impact. 

The important point of the research that others tend to miss is that it''s essential that the nonverbal and verbal elements of a presentation be aligned. 

While facial expressions and eye contact are technically not body language, they do contribute to nonverbal communication and can have a significant impact on a spokesperson''s ability to connect with the audience and get his or her point across. Researchers have found that people can identify with great accuracy seven separate human emotions, even after seeing only facial and eye expressions. These include sadness, happiness, anger, fear, surprise, disgust and interest. Beginning very early in life, typically before a child''s first birthday, people begin building skills that enable them to accurately read the faces of people around them.

As a result, without speaking a word, a facial expression can convey a great deal of information to others. People watch a speaker''s face during a presentation or media interview. When you speak, your face -- more clearly than any other part of your body -- communicates to others your attitudes, feelings and emotions.

How can you remove expressions that don''t belong on your face? First, know what they are. Inappropriate expressions include distracting mannerisms or unconscious expressions not rooted in your feelings, attitudes and emotions. In much the same way that some speakers perform random, distracting gestures and body movements, nervous speakers often release excess energy and tension by unconsciously blinking rapidly, licking lips or tightening the jaw.

While I frequently encourage those participating in our presentation skills training or media interview skills training sessions to project a positive facial expression, I don''t mean they should smile. You see, it is very difficult to fake a smile; there are 80 different muscles involved in smiling. Instead, being positive means sincerely projecting an air of confidence.

If you relax your inhibitions and allow yourself to respond naturally to your thoughts, attitudes and emotions, your facial expressions will be appropriate and will project sincerity, conviction and credibility.

Similarly, eye contact or lack of eye contact can also indicate a person''s attitudes and emotions. The eyes communicate more that any other part of the human anatomy.

Making and maintaining eye contact can have positive outcomes in the workplace. Eye contact can be used to indicate to a person that you are receptive to what they have to say. Additionally, eye contact may indicate that you want to communicate with a person. Finally, eye contact can be used to express respect for a person by maintaining longer eye contact.

A lack of eye contact, or an unwillingness to maintain eye contact may indicate discomfort with a situation, a disinterest in the other person''s words, or a dislike of the person.

In our media interview skills training sessions, we recommend that interviewees lock their eyes on the interviewer. Why? Research suggests that individuals who can routinely out gaze another develop a sense of control and power over others not so inclined. Maintained eye contact can show if a person is trustworthy, sincere or caring. Shifty eyes and/or too much blinking can suggest deception.

The bottom line is that people with eye movements that are relaxed and comfortable yet attentive to the person they are conversing with are seen as more sincere and honest.

Dan Keeney
(832) 467-2904
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Author: Dan Keeney
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