You’re watching a video of a kid on a skateboard.  As he heads for a set of stairs, he jumps into the air with his board aiming towards the handrail. Then (you probably know what’s coming) he accidentally slips off his board and falls several feet to the pavement below, painfully skidding to a stop. Immediately rolling over towards the camera, his body and facial expression is one of absolute pain. In unison with the skateboarder, you grimace and a make an involuntary “oof” noise.

Something neurologically incredible is happening when we see others’ emotional states and it’s invaluable when delivering a presentation.

When we see others expressing extreme emotions (such as pain, anger, or joy) our brain has a special set of neurons (brain cells) that fire. These neurons are called mirror neurons. Mirror Neurons mimic the same parts of our brain as are being triggered in the brain of the person we are observing. In other words, when we see someone crying out of sadness (like in a movie for instance), the parts of our brain that make us feel sad also fire. Essentially, seeing an emotion and actually feeling that emotion are incredibly similar processes for our brains.

Neuroscientists believe that these neurons lie at the heart of almost all social interactions with other humans. For instance, if we see others are in fear of something, we ourselves feel that same fear and can then be on the lookout for whatever is causing that fear as well. Same goes for anger, or celebration (joy) and almost every other instance that requires people to understand how others are feeling.

How can mirror neurons help you deliver an amazing presentation? By adjusting your body language and facial expressions to genuinely and accurately portray emotions at key points throughout your presentations, you can make others literally feel the same emotions as you are. Want to make someone feel angry? Sympathetic? Happy? Excited? Confident? Genuinely act out those emotions while you’re delivering your presentation and others will neurologically have to feel exactly what you want them to feel.

It’s like you’re the leading actor in a play and you need to act out a pivotal scene.

However, there’s a catch: our brains are really good at spotting insincerity. There are so many factors that go into genuinely conveying an emotion such as body language, every part of our face, tone of voice and many more. Really good actors are able to fake all of these factors at the same time in a way that makes them seem real. If an actor messes up on just one of these things (for instance, if a smile doesn’t reflect in the rest of their face) our brains receive mixed signals. These mixed signals create confusion and in turn, cause us to distrust or doubt what we’re observing.

It’s this same process happens when you meet someone and they give you a “fake” smile (which communicates disinterest) and conversely when we see an old friend and they give you a whole-hearted smile (which, when witnessed, tends to make us feel the same way). It’s no surprise that some of the greatest presenters I’ve seen have also been accomplished actors.

A great example of this is Kevin Spacey’s speech about Netflix, House of Cards and the future of television. It’s a relatively dry topic to people who aren’t in the media industry, but Spacey does a great job of making the viewer care about what his issues are regardless of what industry you’re in.

The key takeaways:

  • Mirror neurons are what makes others feel what we’re feeling
  • Genuinely and selectively portray emotions during key parts of your presentation to make others feel how you want them to feel
  • Brush up on your acting skills if you want to get really good at making other people feel what you want them to feel
  • At the very least, practice in front of a mirror to see how yourself looks

As an experiment, post a link to your favorite TED talk in the comments section and have a look at how and when the presenter portrays emotion with their body, language and facial expressions.
Mirror graphic by Luis Padro of the Noun Project.


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