October 3, 2009

Beware the Phony Speaker’s Smile

One of the most common mistakes speakers make is to plaster a smile on their face and keep it there, regardless of what they’re saying. This is as true for my public speaking students as it is for my corporate storytelling students. I encountered this situation twice in the last month.

One was in a Story Theater Retreat here in my home studio, and the other was in a one-day Storytelling in Business workshop for a training company. One of the students was a high-energy female, full of movement and energy.  The other was a male student who was more subdued, but equally enthusiastic. In both cases, the “speaker’s smile” was ever present.

I call it the “speaker’s smile” because it was there all the time when they were presenting, but when they were off the stage, the smile came and went based on the topic of conversation. The problem of the “speaker’s smile” becomes pronounced and incongruent, especially in the context of storytelling.

Every story has its highs and lows. If it’s a good story, it will have an obstacle – a problem to be dealt with and overcome. In the telling of the story, if the storyteller’s face is not congruent with the emotion of the moment, the moment seems false. That was the case with each of these students. At the moment of truth in their stories, when they were describing the difficulty they were facing, they both described it with a smile.

Great speaking is first and foremost about speaking the truth. It’s about addressing the most important issues head on. For me, as I’ve matured as a speaker, my ability to be honest and confrontational is what has set me apart from my competition. I tell it like it is with emotion that is congruent. If I’m talking about the unlimited potential of each individual in my audience, I’m smiling. If I’m talking about self-limiting beliefs, I’m not.

During my acting experience, I learned to take on the persona of the character I was playing and to feel and express any emotion in front of an audience. When I made the transition from acting to speaking, at first it was hard for me to show a range of emotions. I thought I had to be positive all the time.

What I eventually realized is that the end result of a motivational speech needs to be positive, but the speech itself has to contain a range of emotions.  With the development of The Story Theater Method, I have come to understand how our stories, when portrayed with emotional honesty, have the power to take people to a deep place – a place where they can heal their deepest wounds. Because Story Theater stories are so real, so honest and so visceral, the storyteller allows the listener to experience their pain, so that the listener understands their own story better.

If you have been reading my articles for the last eight years or listening to my CDs, you have heard me say that emotion is the fast lane to the brain. That means when the speaker feels and expresses genuine emotion that is congruent with the content being presented, it stimulates an emotional response in the listener. The emotional response is called a “sympathetic experience.”

This “sympathetic experience” takes the listener out of their left logical brain and into a more holistic interpretive state where they are simultaneously seeing, feeling, hearing and experiencing your message with head, heart and intuition. During this heightened state of awareness, they are simultaneously in your story and also imagining their own story.

This deep level of connection cannot take place when the person standing in front of them is smiling all the time, regardless of what they are saying. The “speaker’s smile” is like a subtle lie that takes away from the message being conveyed. The listener doesn’t necessarily know on a conscious level why they don’t believe the speaker. They just know that there is something unbelievable about the speaker and they don’t connect.

Please understand, I am all in favor of smiling when speaking. I do it a lot. If you stand there with a sour face and all you do is dump on people, people won’t want to listen to you. The problem is not the smiling; it’s the false belief that speakers are supposed to smile all the time – to always be happy, high-energy and positive.

Do you smile all day long in all circumstances? Of course not. You smile when you are happy or pleased. You smile when your emotional state warrants a smile. In other words, a smile comes from the inside. Rather that stepping in front of an audience and plastering on a smile, feel the emotion of the moment. Let your face reflect your emotion. In doing so, you will always be authentic.

If you are new to speaking, or don’t speak very often, be careful not to plaster on the  “speaker’s smile”. You can and must be yourself. Your best shot at becoming a successful speaker is to be real. Speak your truth. Stand in your power and say what you have come to say. Don’t be concerned about pleasing everyone in your audience because that’s not your job.

Smile because you are happy. Smile because you are excited about what you have to say and about the opportunity to share your wisdom with an audience. Smile when a smile is appropriate. At other times, trust that your face knows what to do. Trust that your audience knows how to interpret your authentic emotion. Just trust.

To study Doug Stevenson’s  Story Theater Method, purchase his book and audio Six Pack or study with him in person by attending a 4 person Story Theater Retreat in Colorado Springs. If you’re interested in hiring Doug to present a keynote or workshop for your company or association, call Deborah Merriman at 719-573-6195 or visit www.storytelling-in-business.com.

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