Facial Expression

 I couldn’t be fake if I tried. My facial expressions would never allow it. Anon


The face is a complicated thing. It has many dimensions, from things we cant easily change like the bone structure, location of our nose eyes and the colour of our skin. It also includes how we groom and colour our hair, how makeup is worn and whether we wear glasses.

The one we are more interested in is what is Hwang and Matsumoto (2016, p 257) call rapid signs which include “appearance changes to the face due to contractions of the underlying facial muscles that move skin and change the shape of features.” Which can be an important source of information. The challenge as presenters is that some of these movements are involuntary and some voluntary.

The different parts of the face we need to be aware of are forehead, eyes, and lower face.

Eye Contact

There is a lot of information around on the importance of eye contact when we are presenting. And we intuitively know that its important. We much prefer a presenter who is looking at us rather than the back of the room, their notes or out the window. We feel a lot more engaged when the focus of the presenter is on us.

But how long should that eye contact be? The answer of course is that it depends on who the audience is, age, sex, culture, the type of presentation, location and the list goes on.

The first question we need to answer is what’s a normal amount. From there we can use more or less as the circumstance dictates.

Binetti et al. (2016), found in their study on preferred gaze duration (PGD) that “on average, participants have a PGD of 3.3 seconds”. So this is our starting point.

From here we can start to think about what we are trying achieve by using more or less eye contact. Here’s some guidelines.

How muchWhat can be achieved
Use less than the audience membersTo exhibit humility
To show respect
To defuse tension
Use the same as the audience membersIt’s a safe option – so here you may using a lot or a little
To demonstrate equality
To signal a partnership
To nurture
Use more than the audience membersTo be dominant
To show commitment
To demonstrate enthusiasm
To impose authority

There are also a number of cultural variables to be aware of Matsumoto et al. (2016 p. 83) ” For Americans, looking directly at the individual to whom one is talking is a sign of respect. In many other cultures, however, the same behaviour is a sign of disrespect, and looking away or even looking down is a sign of respect.” When thinking about the above table we need to take these cultural variations into account.

How to use it

The name of the game is for you not to talk unless you have eye contact with someone. Think about it. This means you can’t talk and look at your notes, look at the board, look out the window or look at the floor.

Now, if you did this you would be at 150% of where you need to be. That is probably too much and may come across a little stilted or a little weird. Its natural to look at your notes, out the window etc and talk, its conversational, its how we make our presentation authentic.

The point of this is to rehearse at 150% because when we go to deliver we will be at the right amount. That is, 90% of the time we will be looking at our audience and 10% some where else. If we didnt rehearse at 150% then when we go to deliver we would be 50% of where we need to be and not connecting with our audience.

Now we have our focus on our audience, we need to divide our eye contact up between people in our audience. There are a couple of things to take into consideration, the size of the group, the impression you are trying to create and who you need to influence.

Size of the group. If its a small group of 5 -10 you should be able to make sure everyone receives direct eye contact. If everyone appears comfortable in receiving eye contact then split your attention up evenly. If someone is obviously uncomfortable with eye contact, then leave them alone, but don’t ignore them.

For larger groups of people divide the audience into zones. Something like this:

In this diagram you will notice that the zones get bigger as they move toward the back of the room and consequently each zone also contains more people as you move back. So zone 1 may contain 5 people and zone 14, 30 people.

The idea here is that you treat each zone as if it was a person and you make eye contact with one person in that zone. You do this randomly for example going from zone 1 to 8 to15 etc until you have cleaned up all the zones. As you move back you can afford to spend longer holding eye contact. Try and identify a person in a zone by something they are wearing or their proximity to an object such as light or aisle and when you go back to that cluster the next time that person helps you identify that cluster.

Focusing on one person in a zone gives the impression that you are looking directly at everyone in that zone. This is the technique that actors and singers use when they perform. Have you ever been to a concert and thought the performer was singing just to you? Well they might have been, but they may also have been focusing on the person in front, beside or behind you.

You can test this theory. I remember presenting in a lecture theatre with tiered seating of about 180 people talking about this very topic. To demonstrate this approach, I said to an individual at the back of the room that I was looking at them and would come back shortly. I returned to that zone a moment later but looked at another person in that same zone. I then said if I am looking at you could you please raise your hand. About 8 people raised their hand as they were under the impression I was looking at them. A very powerful technique for large groups.

Video Conferencing VC

When we are presenting using a webcam we want to be able to replicate what we see and do live i.e. gestures, body posture, facial expression and eye contact. This is not easy. We can to a certain degree control what we do, but we can’t control what our audiences does.

A lot of the presenting we do today in VC requires us to do a whole range of different tasks while presenting. We have to manage the technology, monitor the chat room and manage our software, which requires us to to be hands on and close to the computer. We do similar things when presenting live, but we can move away from the technology when we are done.

The advice that follows is taken from research on working one on one with a client, but I think we can still take some lessons from their findings. (Grondin et al. 2020)

The context for these guidelines is that we want the audience to see as much of us as is practical and for us to maintain eye contact as best as possible. We are going to assume that we are giving a presentation that doesn’t require us to have a lot of interaction with the technology. Either we just have to load it up and click through some slides or we have someone else doing that for us.

We can easily deal with all verbal and nonverbal elements by positioning ourselves so that we have our torso and head in shot. However there is one nonverbal, eye contact, which is our biggest challenge. What follows are guidelines for setting up our webcam so that we give the impression we are making eye contact with everyone in the audience. You can click on the link here for the whole article with pictures.

  1. Use a gooseneck webcam mount to position the webcam upside down and inside the monitor frame
  2. Use the application settings to flip the image so you are the right way up.
  3. Sit 130cm away from the camera
  4. Position yourself, either sitting or standing so that you are looking very slightly down at the camera.
  5. Preferably use a headset with a microphone. Relying on the webcam microphone from 130 cm probably wont give the best results.

When I was installing my gooseneck I noticed you can have the camera (logitec C920 in my case) the right up, but it protrudes a long way out, verses having it upside down where it sits closer to the screen.

This will work perfectly when we are communicating one on one. Because in essence we have positioned the camera just above the eyes of the other person. So when we speak we have the comfort of looking at someone not the camera. However because of the position of the camera the other person feels as if we are looking at them straight in the eye.

I think it works well for groups also if the platform we are using allows us to highlight an individual. If it doesn’t then its just a little more challenging because we will be directing our thoughts to the camera only.

Until technology like Microsofts i2i is launched we are going to have to use more practical solutions like the above.


We are talking about this bit of your head! In case you dont watch the video – it’s from the eye brows up.

Research by María L.Flecha-García (2010) found that when we raise our eyebrows we do it to signal that we are about to start our discourse (presentation) and secondly they may be used to add emphasis to important bits of information.

These two things may seem fairly obvious, as we do them naturally and their meaning is understood by our audience. However the important lesson is to be conscious of how we can use them tactically. For example when we are looking to gain the attention of an audience, we might stand facing the audience with our palms facing out and elevated slightly from our sides with our chin slightly raised, mouth open ready to talk and our eyebrows raised.

We also know that raised eyebrows when accompanied by a higher pitch is perceived as friendly, and conversely lower pitch and eyebrows is associated with aggression. (Huron & Shanahan 2013). Once again fairly obvious, but an awareness of this can enable us to implement this tactically when we are trying to portray a friendly disposition or be assertive.

Lower Face

Typically the lower face is going to be the lips and mouth, and as David Givens (2015 p.13) puts it they (the lips) are among the most emotionally expressive of all body parts. Below is a table adapted from David Gibbins study which describes how the lips are used to describe different expressions.

SmileHappiness, Affiliation, Contentment
Canine snarlDisgust, Disliking
Lip pout – lips pushed outSadness, Submission, Uncertainty
Lip purse – lips sucked inDisagreement
Lip compressionAnger, Frustration, Uncertainty

There are two things to take into consideration here. The first is that these expressions are based on the emotions we are feeling at a given point in time. The neurological change happens first then the expression second – sometimes instantaneously. In this case we need to be conscious of what happens when, for example, we are asked a tricky question in a presentation, how will our expression change and what will it say. Will it contradict the answer you are giving. For example you say you are happy to discuss an alternative proposal when you are compressing your lips.

The second is to use these expressions tactically. Think about what you are trying to communicate and apply the appropriate expression. Rehearsing in a mirror is a good way to identify what works.


Binetti, N, Harrison, C, Coutrot, A, Johnston, A & Mareschal, I 2016, ‘Pupil dilation as an index of preferred mutual gaze duration’, R Soc Open Sci, vol. 3, no. 7, pp. 160086-160086.

Flecha-García, ML 2010, ‘Eyebrow raises in dialogue and their relation to discourse structure, utterance function and pitch accents in English’, Speech Communication, vol. 52, no. 6, 2010/06/01/, pp. 542-554.

Givens, DB 2015, ‘Nonverbal Neurology: How the Brain Encodes and Decodes Wordless  Signs, Signals, and Cues’, in The social psychology of nonverbal communication,  Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

Grondin, F, Lomanowska, AM, Békés, V & Jackson, PL 2020, ‘A methodology to improve eye contact in telepsychotherapy via videoconferencing with considerations for psychological distance’, Counselling psychology quarterly, pp. 1-14.

Huron, D & Shanahan, D 2013, ‘Eyebrow movements and vocal pitch height: evidence consistent with an ethological signal’, J Acoust Soc Am, vol. 133, no. 5, May, pp. 2947-52.

Matsumoto, DR, Hwang, HS, Frank, MG & American Psychological Association. 2016, APA handbook of nonverbal communication, First edition.edn., American Psychological Association, Washington, DC.