Hint: Stop trying to read facial expressions.
Ever wish you could call “time out” during your presentation to ask the audience how you’re doing? Since that usually isn’t doable, your next best option is to scan people’s faces for emotional clues, but recent research suggests that can lead you astray, too.
In her new book How Emotions Are Made, psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett claims that our beliefs about facial expressions need an overhaul. “When facial movements do convey a psychological message—say, raising an eyebrow—we don’t know if the message is always emotional,” she writes, “or even if its meaning is the same each time. If we put all the scientific evidence together, we cannot claim, with any reasonable certainty, that each emotion has a diagnostic facial expression.”
So where does this leave us? If facial expressions aren’t a good barometer of how well your talk is going, what is? These are a few subtler, more reliable signs to look for—and what to do if you realize something isn’t clicking.
1. THE AUDIENCE IS IN LOCKSTEP
One way to tell whether you’re connecting with your audience is if they seem to be reacting as a single unit. But this type of cohesion can only happen if your whole audience is completely tuned in to the same signal. One exercise that my team and I run in one of our speaking bootcamps expresses this concept using drumsticks. We blindfold participants and tell them to start drumming together. At first they’re hopelessly disjointed, but after a few moments they begin drumming at the same rhythm—without even seeing each other, they tune in. Then, when we ask them to change the rhythm, they come together again almost immediately.
So watch (and listen!) for the types of reactions you’re eliciting while you speak. If if your audience seems to react as one singular stream, rather than a sequence of drips and drops, all distinct from one another, you’re doing a great job. On the other hand, if you’re seeing a few people shifting in their chairs, a few others more drawing on their notepads, and a handful of others watching you intently, that’s a sign that you’re not resonating.
2. THE QUESTIONS ARE RELEVANT
Another way you can tell you’re connecting with your audience is if the questions are on point. If you’ve ever given a presentation and been frustrated at the sorts of questions people ask you afterward (or during), you know what this feels like. If you’re hearing questions that are tangential to your main points—or completely unrelated—that likely means you didn’t make a strong impact.
On the other hand, if you’re getting questions that are genuinely thoughtful and directly in line with what you’ve talked about, you’ll know you’ve succeeded. One way to test this out before you get to end is simply to pause and ask for questions at key turning points in your talk; this way you can change gears if it seems you need to.
3. THERE ARE NO INTERRUPTIONS
Getting few if any interruptions is another great sign that you’re connecting with listeners. I recently worked with an executive who was giving his first presentation to an audit committee. An executive from PricewaterhouseCoopers who went first was constantly interrupted by the committee, which grilled him for three hours straight—a bad sign. But when it was my client’s turn, he was able to present without any interjections. They even told him “great job” when he finished. So if nobody in your audience jumps in to press a point, ask for clarification, or but in with an idea of their own, it’s likely that your message is resonating just fine.
Lastly, if you’re having a hard time connecting with your audience, it might be because you’re not connecting with yourself. It isn’t easy, but the truth is that you need to concentrate on every aspect of your delivery—what you’re feeling, what you’re saying, and what you’re doing. If the audience sees that you’re fully tuned in to yourself, they’ll become fully tuned in to you.
You may not be able to get inside the heads of your audience members, and trying to read their faces might not do the trick, either. But if you pay attention to these three signs, you won’t be completely in the dark.