Kenneth Lay had 949 days from Enron’s bankruptcy filing to his July 8 indictment. Martha Stewart had 932 days between her ImClone stock sale and her July 16 sentencing. Time enough for both to prepare scripts for what may have been the most critical statements of their lives — the obligatory postcourt postmortems for the assembled media masses.
But even the perfect script can fall flat without flawless delivery — and that’s not just about how people speak and gesticulate. Facial expressions reveal powerful clues about what someone is thinking and feeling, how he regards his audience, and what the real story is.
To help us critique Lay’s and Stewart’s public attempts to, well, save face, we called on Dan Hill, a “facial coding” expert who heads consulting firm Sensory Logic, to analyze photos from both news conferences. Hill uses techniques developed by psychiatrist Paul Ekman that link facial-muscle activities to “psychophysiological” emotional responses. His techniques help companies better understand what customers really think (in focus groups, many are too polite) and scrutinize the expressions of brand icons (Tony the Tiger is actually angry!). We asked Hill: Who put on the better face?
Former chairman, Enron Corp.
Postindictment news conference
July 8, 2004
They say the eyes don’t lie. If that’s true, Ken Lay is afraid, very afraid. No wonder: If convicted, the former Enron CEO could face 175 years in prison. Surprisingly, Lay appeared in command through most of his conference, though he stammered at times. But in this photo, Hill says, Lay’s raised eyebrows and slight “bug’s eyes” betray fear and surprise. The downturned corners of his mouth and a bulge below his lip hint at sadness — and disgust, too. Lay is approaching what Hill calls a “toxic combination” for CEOs: contempt and fear. “It’s a very dangerous and disabling combination and quite possibly the hallmark of a not very good CEO.” As for the sadness: Lay called Enron’s bankruptcy one of the saddest days of his life. And “he does look more forlorn,” says Hill. “But is it on behalf of employees and investors? That’s possible, but the disgust kind of plays against it.”
Former chairman, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia
Postsentencing news conference
July 16, 2004
When Martha Stewart emerged from the courthouse after getting five-and-five (months, that is: the first five in prison and the rest confined to home), she stared directly into the camera — a TV no-no. Seemingly both genuine and genuinely disgusted, Stewart condemned the “almost fatal circus event” surrounding her trial: “I have been choked and almost suffocated to death.” While there’s no facial code for suffocation, Hill thinks the picture shows Stewart in a human moment. Her raised chin and an “upside-down smile” reveal traces of disgust, anger, and sadness. But as Stewart held up her forefinger and vowed, “I’ll be back,” the dimples in her cheek pointed to contempt. The effect “is richly ambivalent, and it corresponds nicely to her statement — defiant, distressed, disgusted, upset — all that’s going on for Martha,” Hill says. “She’s not the ice queen here.”