One of the most common pieces of advice given to aspiring and practicing public speakers is, "learn how to read the room". Yet when asked, few people can explain what this advice means, or how to put it into practice beyond generic tips like, "Read the room. Read the crowd. Gauge the audience. Watch the body language."
Read the room is a useless platitude, a cliche that we can't bring to life. Let's look at what reading the room is and how to do it in a concrete, actionable way.
What is Reading the Room?
Reading the room refers specifically to judging how receptive the audience is to us. We do it before our talks, we do it during our talks, and we do it at the end of our talks to gauge how well-received our talk was.
When we read the room, we're looking for sensory cues which help us to understand how our audience is feeling. How engaged might they be when we take the stage? If we know the room is low energy, we know we'll need to open stronger than normal, crack the safe joke about people not having had enough coffee. If we know the room is high energy, we could launch right into the talk with less warmup.
How to Read the Room?
We begin with the environment, which we assess as soon as possible. Most conferences request speakers be available 15-30 minutes before they're scheduled to go on stage. This is prime time we should use to our advantage.
What time of day is our talk? Right after lunch is the food coma slot - manageable, but requires more energy. The last session of the day is generally the worst slot because people leave early and those who remain behind are just waiting out the sessions to go to the bar. If you're not naturally a high energy speaker, you'll need to turn up the energy dial.
In the room itself, how's the lighting? Brighter is better - make the room as bright as possible without making screens/slides unreadable. A dim, darkened room is an invitation for the audience to take a nap.
What temperature is the room? This is why we arrive early; we want the temperature to be between 68-72F; go warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. If the room is above 72F, ask to have it turned down. We want to avoid creating conditions where distraction and drowsiness are likely, and a room above 72F will not help us.
Take control of the room, the environment, as much as possible.
Reading the Audience
Next, look at the crowd. Divide the room up into six mental boxes:
- Front half left
- Front half middle
- Front half right
- Back half left
- Back half middle
- Back half right
In each mental box, pick a handful of people and look at them:
Are they energized? Eager? Bored? Pay attention to these people during the talk as a barometer of how the talk is doing.
In any talk, the people who are closer to the front tend to be more engaged simply by virtue of proximity.
- If the folks in the back aren't paying attention, that's fairly normal.
- If the folks in the middle aren't engaged, our talk might not be resonating as well as it could.
- If the folks in the front aren't engaged, we've messed up. We're not clicking with the audience.
Before the talk, walk around. Talk to a few people about why they're in the session and what they hope to get out of it. Learn their names and work them into the talk if appropriate.
Walk around the back of the room as people settle in. Look at what's 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 shopping, they have literally checked out. We 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.
During the talk, listen. Pay attention to typing cadence and device cadence - how fast people are typing on their devices, and when. if it's in sync with our key points, then we've engaged our audience well. If it's out of sync, if the people we're watching in each of the six boxes above are typing furiously when we haven't hit a major point, we know the audience isn't engaged. If the event grants permission, video the audience during the talk. We can review the footage to see people's reactions during our talk and make note of what hit and what missed.
Finally, turn on Twitter notifications of mentions of our handle on our smartphones or smartwatches - on vibrate, of course. Twitter is the new applause at events. We should feel more vibration, more haptic feedback if people are tweeting about our talk because they're mentioning us. Don’t use the conference hashtag - specifically use our username, and make sure to highlight our Twitter handle early and often in the talk, even to the point of putting it (in a small way) on every slide.
After the talk, engage. Take questions as people file out of the room, but pay attention to how quickly people leave. One trick I do is leave a stack of business cards at the front of the room and mention at the very end of the talk that if people just want a business card, come up to the stage and snag one from the pile. I'll then take questions in a separate area, but watch how many people walk up and take cards. This is a good way to engage people who are shy or introverted; it alleviates the burden of them having to make awkward conversation.
These tips should help you read rooms better as a public speaker for any engagement where the room is larger than just a handful of folks.
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