November 29, 2010

What are you hiding when you cover your mouth?

I went through a phase when I was younger where I covered my mouth when I smiled or laughed. I felt self-conscious about my big, crooked teeth and overbite.

Somehow I became aware of this behavior and retrained myself to stop hiding my mouth. It's part of me, right? Let it all hang out.

I see this face-covering and -touching behavior more often when people are sitting than standing, during interviews or discussions where the setting may feel more casual than a presentation. But it happens in all presentation settings, and it's a problem with a quick fix.

It comes in the form of a someone playing with their hair, stroking their mustache or goatee, scratching their nose or resting their chin in their hand, and a million other little distractions. It's an unconscious habit, possibly a self-soothing or protective one, and most people don't realize they're doing it.

When you put your hand on your face repeatedly while speaking, one of four things is likely to happen:

1. Your movement becomes distracting and takes away from your content.

2. Your audience can't hear what you're saying because your hand muddles your voice.

3. Your audience can't see what you're saying because your hand covers your mouth.

4. Your audience believes you're embarrassed or hiding something because you hide your mouth.

When you're speaking, many audience members needs to see AND hear you. Nonverbal communication (gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice, emotion, etc.) adds depth to your words and helps your audience better comprehend your attitude, personality and message.

It's also easier to understand what someone is saying when you can see their mouth, especially for participants with hearing impairments. 

Speaking for myself, one reason I don't like talking on the phone is that I can't see the other person's face. I can't fully grasp a conversation without seeing someone's mouth.

This is also an example of why it's harder to keep people engaged in a remote presentation, where your face might be tiny on the screen or not on the screen at all. Most of your ability to communicate nonverbally is absent.

If you have a tendency to put your hand on your face or near your mouth, ask someone to watch you next time you present, either onstage or in a meeting. 

Or record yourself to get a sense of your movement. If you're covering or obscuring your face or mouth repeatedly, become aware of this habit and start weaning yourself off of it.

Try breathing and relaxation techniques before you speak if you feel this habit is anxiety-related, but also know that awareness is your first line of defense. 

When you feel your hand drifting up toward your face, ask yourself if it's a necessary gesture or a habitual one, then act accordingly. I have allergies and, even though I take several allergy medications, I have a really itchy nose and eyes. So I often have to legit scratch during a presentation!

What do you have to hide?

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