“If you want to become a more effective public speaker, you have to learn how to read the room.”
That’s advice you’re going to find in nearly every public speaking manual, course, etc. Read the room. Read the crowd. Gauge the audience. Watch the body language.
Except… no one actually tells you in usable detail HOW to do this. Read the room becomes a useless platitude, a cliche that’s not actionable. So here’s my template, my recipe for reading the room. Yours probably will vary once you develop it, and I’d love any fellow speakers to contribute their tips as well.
First, look at the room environment itself. What time of day is your talk? Right after lunch is food coma slot. 2-3 PM is siesta slot. Last session of the day means you’re all that stands between the crowd and the bar. Adapt your talk accordingly. If you’ve got a naturally low energy period of the day, you’re going to need to turn up the energy knob.
Lighting should ideally be bright. If it’s dim, people will natually fade out on you. Make the lighting as bright as possible without compromising your visuals.
Temperature should ideally be cool to cold. 68-70F is great. 70-72 is okay. Above 72 and people can get warm, and that means natural drowsiness. Above 75 and you’re hosed.
Next, look at the crowd. Divide the room up into front, middle, and back, left side and right side. Pick one row or table in each of the 6 areas, and look at those people.
Are they energized? Eager? Bored? The back row is typically the first to be disengaged, so that’s not necessarily a warning sign. If the middle row appears disengaged, start to worry. If the front row has checked out, again, you’re hosed.
Before your talk, walk around. Talk to a few people here and there, but at a business conference especially, look at what’s up on people’s screens. If it’s email, they’re not paying attention, and chances are they will only be paying partial attention during your entire talk. If it’s online shoppping, they’re really not there. You might have to resort to the dreaded “Please close your laptops” tidbit. If it’s Facebook, Twitter, or another social network, or a Word document blank, then they are paying attention, at least partially.
Pay attention to typing cadence and device cadence – how fast people are typing on their devices, and when. if it’s in sync with your key points, then you’ve got an engaged crowd. If it’s out of sync, if your sample rows are furiously typing when you haven’t said anything critical in a little while, then they’ve checked out.
Finally, turn on Twitter notifications of mentions on your phone, then set your phone to vibrate. Twitter is the new applause. With your phone in your pocket, you should feel more vibration if people are tweeting about you and your session. Don’t use the conference hashtag – specifically use your username, and make sure to highlight your Twitter handle early and often in the talk, even to the point of putting it (in a small way) on every slide.
These tips should help you read rooms better as a speaker for any engagement where the room is larger than just a handful of folks.
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