I am working in my third agency. At my first agency, my manager always asked me to deliver information “In a nutshell please Beth!” when time was of the essence, and my detailed narrations were perceived to be a little much. In my second agency, it appeared I had mastered the art of verbal summary but to the detriment of my expressions.

Having observed my capabilities in a client meeting, this next manager took me to one side and politely advised me that I had absolutely lost control of my face. She’d apparently observed a variety of eye widening, nostril flaring and brow furrowing movements that, unknown to me, were explicitly showcasing my unimpressed-ness to everyone in the room.

When I joined One Black Bear, I warned the team about this impairment. I’m less Mona Lisa. More Mr. Bean.

But having explored how the way we communicate is changing in my last blog, maybe my face isn’t quite as dysfunctional as I originally thought. If what we see can truly convey emotion better than what we hear or read, then facial expressions could reveal more than what we say, and even what we think.

Take it at face value

Even when we try very hard to hide our real feelings, our faces will often display the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And the reason for this is pretty straightforward. Actors and pathological liars aside, human emotions are an unconscious reaction, typically lasting up to four seconds, and displayed via facial muscles. But four seconds is a long time, and there’s plenty that can go wrong in that time.

In the 1960s psychologists coined the term ‘Micro-expression’. Typically lasting a fraction of a second, micro-expressions are an innate result of an involuntary emotional response, occurring when the brain responds appropriately to the stimulus that a person experiences, but need to hide. This results in a very brief display of a true emotion, followed by a false reaction to cover it up. It was originally thought that micro-expressions were mostly negative, encompassing disgust, anger, fear, contempt etc. Though in the 1990s, these were expanded to include more positive sentiments like pride, pleasure and amusement.

So, back to my face for a second, it could be that my micro-expressions are too long (though working in client management, I’m opting for the term ‘thorough’). My micro’s gone macro. But I am an honest person. And as neither a professional actor, nor pathological liar (though if I was both how would you know I was either?), I can only assume that while my face is broken, it is telling the truth. And if there is so much truth to uncover, could studying these facial reactions bring a new perspective to marketing research?

Say it to my face

The core of marketing research lies in understanding what people think and feel. But if people aren’t always aware of their own perceptions, they could be consciously saying one thing, but unconsciously really thinking another.

We already know that effective advertising appeals to emotions. Keeping in mind the fact that people aren’t always aware of their expressions, the use of things like eye tracking and facial coding can bring a new dimension to research. And thinking about other variables that can affect a ‘truthful’ verbal or written reaction (Is this what they want to hear? Will one answer benefit me over another? Am I in a good mood? Do I have time for this?), this could be really important.

Tui tested this out, asking people their thoughts on the impact, execution, and message of one of their ads. At the same time, they used facial coding to gauge the same insight. This second implicit approach uncovered that next to dominant expressions of mainly positive emotions towards the advert, people also showed signs of anger and sadness that weren’t apparent through explicit questioning. Aligning changes in facial expression with actual scenes in the advert also allowed Tui to pinpoint when particular emotions were displayed, delivering clear guidelines for optimisation. But advertisers still need a combination of the two. Analysis of facial expressions provide important insight, but will not explain why these reactions occurred. Feeding this information back to people will allow for emotional validation, but more importantly allow for a better understanding of the reasons behind them.

I guess my face works at One Black Bear as the agency prides itself on intuition. We aren’t afraid to ask questions and dig deeper to find the real drivers behind what’s being said and, importantly, what isn’t.

So, as a message to my manager from agency two, maybe it’s ok that my face doesn’t always work, so long as I can explain why this is, and get myself out of any trouble when I need to. In fact, perhaps my face conveys so much information, I may never have to speak again – music to the ears of my manager from agency one.