The late Alan Rickman’s first appearance as Professor Snape in the inaugural Harry Potter movie finds him storming into Potions class. He strides up to the front of the room and glowers at the students, then launches into a no-nonsense monologue that quickly establishes Snape’s intimidating persona. He ends by targeting Harry personally, deriding him as “our new celebrity.”
Chances are you consider yourself a much warmer, more likable speaker than that–more of a Dumbledore than a Snape. But while you may not go out of your way to intimidate, some of the habits and techniques you’ve picked up might be creating a harsher impression than you realize. In fact, a few of the common tips for speakers, including how to come across as more “authoritative” and “powerful,” can actually backfire. Here are three you might want to avoid.
1. Blank Facial Expressions
It’s pretty easy to appear colder and more stern than you intend to. In fact, many speakers aren’t even conscious of when their facial expressions fall slack. Many people find speaking to be a daunting task, and, nervous about seeming like they don’t know what they’re talking about, they go too far in the opposite direction–formal, tensed up, wooden.
Or maybe it’s the reverse–you’re a comfortable speaker, and it’s just that you haven’t given your expressions much thought when you speak. So wearing a blank expression is just a habit of yours. Years ago, in fact, a client approached me for help making better connections with his audience. I thought he looked attractive, but as I watched him speak I realized his face wasn’t registering emotion. He was intimidating because he was totally hidden behind a blank expression. Later he mentioned a history of family trauma, where he’d learned to deliberately conceal his emotions.
That’s an extreme case, but for most people a little physical warmup can help. Get your facial muscles moving a few minutes before you have to get up and talk. Try squeezing your face together, crunching all your features up into the middle of your face–then release them. Do this a few times. Once you get the muscles stimulated and you practice making faces, you’ll discover over time that when you concentrate on what you’re saying, you won’t actually have to “emote”–your face will naturally convey more feeling.
2. Too Many Weighty Pauses
Yes, powerful speakers are articulate. They also know how and when to pause for dramatic effect. But when you have a difficult message to communicate, you might struggle to be precise. You pause to search for just the right word, the perfect way to position your point. And while you’re going through your mental edit, your audience is wondering what you’re thinking about. You may think those pauses add some gravity and drama to what you’re saying, but they’re wondering what’s wrong. Why are you being so cautions? Listeners may even find that intimidating, especially if you’re in a position of power.
The solution is to stop focusing on your actual words and start focusing on your rhythm instead. Give up precision. Let your thoughts flow, and your words will follow. Think of it like driving a car: Keep your foot on the accelerator with steady, deliberate pressure–don’t keep pumping the brakes.
Repetition isn’t necessarily a bad speaking strategy. It can help you build momentum and capture an audience’s attention. But when your repeated phrases take the form of a “drill-down”–a rapid-fire succession of questions–whatever power you were hoping to convey just becomes off-putting and abrasive.
You might start with one rhetorical question like, “We looked at the data and wondered, why is that number x?” then follow with, “and why is that number x? Why is this number y? Why was there this disconnect?” As your energy builds, the air of wonderment can become too intense and overwhelming. So avoid the machine-gun repetition and instead of drilling down into the problem or idea you’re considering, recognize that less is more. One penetrating question is more powerful than a series of nitpicking pokes.
Take your thinking up to a higher, conceptual level. A better approach to that last example might be, “We looked at all these data points and wondered what they meant altogether–where were the broken connections?” By shifting your focus up toward the bigger picture, you go from seeming disjointed, and even on the attack, to patiently unpacking a difficult issue.
It’s sometimes easy to send a message you never intended to. But it’s possible to avoid that just by becoming a more self-aware speaker; this way you can make choices that reflect your intentions–without compromising either your authority or your warmth.