There is nothing I hate more than being told to smile.
Actually, I take that back. There’s much I hate more than that.
Like when the cat yaks a hairball onto the freshly washed down comforter.
Or when someone cuts me off and then takes the parking spot I had my eye on, the only open one on the block.
Also misogyny, racism and systemic inequality.
There are many things we shouldn’t grin and bear.
But, apparently, I should smile more.
I accept this advice, as it came from an appropriate source.
In this case, it wasn’t a cat-calling construction worker hooting, “Smile for me, baby!”
It wasn’t Ogling Oliver from the office suggesting I’d be “so much prettier” if I smiled.
It was offered by a trusted colleague. The intent was to support, not control or demean. The suggestion was requested, not unsolicited.
All of which adds to the reason that – at least in this case – being told to smile more is great advice, unlike those six career-stalling words that make up the Worst Advice I’ve Ever Received.
(Hint: They’re “Just keep doing what you’re doing.” This is terrible career-building advice).
In this case, the advice came after I had just finished a presentation. My colleague was in the meeting.
I knew it went well. She told me so.
I also knew I could do better.
So that’s exactly what I asked. That question that those who believe in growth potential and room for improvement most want to know:
“What can I do better?”
What advice did she have for me? There had to be something. C’mon, dig in, be honest.
She was quiet for a moment and then said, “You should smile more.”
My smile instantly disappeared.
What kind of advice is that? Terrible advice! Terrible, sexist advice!
Or, is it?
I’m not a naturally smiley person. My work face is one of intense concentration.
I once got caught on TV, mid-scowl, in what my husband calls my Frowny Work Face.
Now that I do work I love, I feel my smile more. But I don’t always show it. It’s that focused concentration thing. The many thoughts in my head are apparent on my face.
At times I too easily show my cards. I glare. I glower. I’ll stare you down if you steal my parking spot.
Do I need to smile more on stage?
There was a videographer at this particular presentation for replay evidence.
My content was strong. My delivery was clear. My body language was OK (note to self, you’re still not standing up straight).
And my smile was… not there. I was telling stories – humorous, relatable, informative stories. And I looked all-too-serious.
No one wants to look like a freakish clown.
But if you are in front of a crowd and enjoying it, your face should reflect it. I didn’t look unhappy, but I certainly didn’t emote on my face what I was feeling inside.
My face said, “I know my stuff and here’s stuff you should know too.”
My face did not say, “I love and believe in this stuff because it means showing you how to love and believe in yourself.”
And that’s what I wanted the audience to receive.
She was right. I needed that simple reminder to smile more.
But, wait… wouldn’t that be faking it? Don’t I talk about presentations that are authentic, relatable, and generous?
Yes, I do. And it would be more generous to demonstrate how happy I am to be there.
I had to face the fact that my face wasn’t factually correct. I wasn’t letting myself show what I was feeling inside.
If you want audiences to feel welcome, you’ve got to welcome them in.
If you want audiences to smile along with you, you’ve got to smile.
If you want to share your joy, you can’t stifle your smile.
It’s taken some practice, both inside and out, to smile more. It comes more naturally now.
I’m thankful to my friend for pointing out my frown.
And that’s something to smile about.
In her two decades in the media, Valerie Gordon put award-winning stories on television. Now, as the founder of career and communication strategy firm The Storytelling Strategist, she speaks at conferences and works with corporations to help high-achievers capitalize on the power of storytelling to grow their careers and build strong teams. Her clients’ success makes her smile.