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Making a Habit of Reading the Room

Say you’re delivering a presentation in front of five people. You’ve spent a good amount of time preparing for it. In ad, you’re absolutely crushing it, but then you notice someone constantly looking at their phone while another seems to have a sleepy look in their eyes.

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What could possibly be going wrong here? How can you become a more effective public speaker?

You’ll have to start reading the room.

In public speaking, “reading the room” refers to the ability to logically judge how receptive an audience is to your speech and being able to adjust accordingly based on your judgement. It’s a skill mastered by presentation experts to adapt to any given room they’re presenting in front of. It can develop into an instinct that has its applications in both work and social situations.

Understand your audience

Your senses are your biggest tools for reading the room. Attune your eyes and ears to every comment and physical movement your audience makes. Are they locked in attentively? Are they fidgeting in their seats? Did someone just let out a big yawn?

When you feel your audience’s focus waning, bring your energy level up. Start getting them more involved in your topic.

Read these signals as subconscious evaluations of both you and your presentation but be sure to stay calm even when things seem to be going south.

As a public speaker, remember that you have the floor to directly communicate with your audience. If you feel that they’re losing interest, you may take a quick pause and ask them for insight. This reengages them into the topic while getting a clearer gauge of their reception, eliminating plenty of the guesswork that comes with reading the room.

While that may seem nerve-wracking to give your audience free rein to criticize your work mid-presentation, it creates the opportunity to gain more information on their perspective. It’s a move that shows your willingness to take control of your own presentation by being thoughtful of the people around you.

Know the room

It’s important to read the environment as a whole, even more so than just the people in it.

What time is your presentation? If it’s early in the morning, then you can expect the energy of the room to be on the low side. You are then in the position to wake your audience up. Late-day presentations can be a struggle because people tend to start mentally checking-out as they anticipate the joy of heading home. These cases will need you to turn up the energy to really get them invested in your presentation.

Public speaking specialists will tell you that temperature is a big factor in the reception of your speech. When a room is too cold, your audience maybe just a bit too frozen to listen to you. Try to arrive as early as possible to get a feel for the room temperature. Adjust it to your liking. You want your audience to be comfortable enough that it’s conducive to the whole presentation.

If you’re presenting in a big room with a large audience, the process of reading the room changes. You’ll have to look at the room in layers: front, middle, and back. Be sure to continuously scan the room layer-by-layer, using the people in the middle as your primary gauge for how well your presentation is going.

While your goal is always to get the attention of everyone in the room, it’s normal for attention levels to decrease the farther away people are from you. However, if the ones sitting in front do not seem interested all, it may call for a drastic change in the entire presentation.

No matter how amazing your PowerPoint may look, failing to read the room will lead to a presentation that just falls short of its mark.

With enough practice, the act of reading the room can become both habit and instinct. Consider it an essential aspect to developing a well-rounded character both in and out of the boardroom. The more you’re able to personally connect with those you work with, the more you’ll be able to better grow your business.

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Peck, David. “Read the Room! 4 Keys to Upgrade Your Leadership Communication.” January 25, 2017.

Penn, Christopher. “How to Read the Room as a Public Speaker.” May 18, 2017.

Leonhardt, Ted. “Here’s the Right Way to Read a Room.” September 19, 2016.