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Reading the room gives you an edge — no matter who you're talking to

June 16, 2022 - 11 min read

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What does it mean to read the room?

Why is it important to read the room?

5 tips for reading the room

Ways to practice self-love

What’s the difference between a successful presentation and a not-so-successful one?

People that are skilled public speakers aren’t just good at putting words together. They know how to read a room. That skill doesn’t just make people good at public speaking. It’s helpful in all kinds of situations — whether in a one-on-one meeting, a sales pitch, or a networking event.

If you’re not good at reading the room, you might feel lost in conversations and social events. You might overthink your social interactions (before and after), wondering what they really thought of your idea or why they didn’t laugh at your joke.

Like most communication skills, however, reading the room is something that you can practice and master. Learning to pick up on what isn’t being said can enhance your presentation and communication skills. These tips will help you become a more effective and engaging communicator.

What does it mean to read the room?

Have you ever walked into a room and immediately picked up on a weird vibe? Or answered the phone and knew, before the other person said anything, that it was going to be bad news?

If so, you’ve got some context for what it means to read the room.

By paying close attention to how people respond to you, you can respond accordingly. Noticing these cues can help you keep your audience engaged in the conversation. This process of adjustment and assessment is a kind of feedback-cycle that enriches the quality of communication.

Why is it important to read the room?

Whether you’re talking to a small group, a huge audience, or just one other person, reading the room is critical. Tuning into their energy and body language can help you have more satisfying and productive conversations.

The ability to notice these cues (and what they say about the thoughts of the people you’re talking to) can be practiced and honed. Reading the room has the following benefits:

1. Improves communication

Learning to pay attention to both verbal and nonverbal communication means that you get more out of each conversation. 

2. Better business outcomes

When you’re able to tell that a conversation is going really well (or really badly), you’re more likely to close deals and win over clients.

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3. Establishes rapport

When people feel heard and respected in a conversation, they like the speaker more. A disconnect between the speaker and the audience creates stagnant, negative energy.

4. Increases engagement

If a listener feels like you’re tuned in — or like you can read their thoughts — they’ll pay more attention. Increased engagement means that they get more out of the interaction and that the speaker doesn’t have to work as hard to keep their attention.

5. Avoid disaster

Ever seen a conversation or interaction between two people go downhill fast? Getting good at reading signals can help you pivot a conversation that’s going sour before there’s irreversible damage.

Surprisingly enough, this skill even works in digital environments. Once you learn how to gauge attentiveness, you’ll notice when people are checked out — even when they’re not in the room. Paying attention to these cues can dramatically improve the quality of conversations you have with others.

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5 tips for reading the room

When you learn how to read the room, what you’re really doing — in the simplest terms possible — is paying attention to subtle feedback that indicates how people are feeling. In particular, you’re learning to read three things: attentiveness, engagement, and sentiment.

Attentiveness is whether or not your audience is paying attention to you. If they’re uninterested in what you have to say, their body language usually tips you off. This could mean fidgeting, multitasking, yawning, or zoning out.

Engagement is the level of interest and response you’re getting from your listeners. People may pay attention out of politeness, but engagement is difficult to fake. An engaged audience will ask questions, take notes, correct you if you make a mistake, and are unlikely to multitask.

Sentiment refers to how your listeners are feeling. By watching their reactions, you can tell if they agree or disagree with you, like or dislike you, or if they’re uncomfortable. Discomfort might be related to the topic at hand, or to other concerns (for example, a too-cold conference room, bad lighting, or cognitive overload). 

There are several techniques you can practice to get better at reading the attentiveness, engagement, and sentiment of your audience. Here are five ways to get better at reading a room:

1. Learn to read nonverbal cues

What are people doing while you’re speaking? Are they sighing, sitting back, crossing their arms, rolling their eyes, smiling, or scratching their heads? These microexpressions and gestures can indicate how they’re receiving information.

Sometimes, these gestures might include objects, like cellphones, notebooks, or tapping pencils. If you see any of these — particularly if it’s repeated or happening in most of the group — don’t step over it. Say something like, “Uh-oh — I see everyone’s checking their phones. Did I lose you, or is it lunchtime?”

Avoid badgering people to pay attention. As the speaker, it’s your job to be engaging enough that they want to give you their full attention. Humor is a great way to gently bring them back on track. Shaming them for getting distracted will likely just make them mad at you.

You can also read nonverbal behaviors on virtual platforms like Zoom. If cameras are on, you can see if they’re looking away, down, or talking while on mute. If team members are toggling between mute and unmute, they may be trying to say something and having a hard time being heard.

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2. Stay out of your head

Novice public speakers and presenters are often too worried about getting through their content to pay attention to their audience. Stay present and focused. Keeping your attention off of yourself lets you pay closer attention to the group dynamics.

In one leadership development program I participated in, we were taught to “clear ourselves” before we spoke to a room. That meant dressing to be confident and comfortable, dumping anything that was on our minds, and refocusing on the intention of the presentation.

I learned that once I had handled all of my concerns in advance, it was much easier to be present with the needs of the audience. I wasn’t as distracted by unfinished tasks or other worries. That let me stay engaged with the people I was talking to.

If you feel overwhelmed or anxious while speaking, take a deep breath. Instead of worrying about delivering everything perfectly, focus on your listeners. Make eye contact and act as if you’re having a one-on-one conversation. That will help you relax into the conversation, rather than being overwhelmed by the entire room.

3. Practice reading between the lines

Many people aren’t really listening when others speak to them. We have the habit of thinking about what our response will be while the other person is speaking. As a result, we might catch the words but miss the nuance.

You can practice active listening skills and reading between the lines with a coach. Ask them a question, and try feeding their response back to them. See how much information you can tell them based on their answer, body language, and tone.

4. Ask for feedback

You don’t have to wait until the conversation is over to find out how it went. You can check in periodically to make sure you haven’t lost your audience. For example, after covering a complex topic, pause and talk directly to your listeners (or learners). Recap and ask them if it’s okay to continue speaking. 

Keep mental tabs on how much you talk and whether you still “have the room.” If you’re starting to lose their attention, ask an open-ended question or let them take a quick break.

5. Don’t forget about basic needs

When I taught continuing education classes, the teachers would all joke that “the mind can only absorb what the bottom can endure.” Even the most impressive speaker or the most interesting topic won’t keep an audience engaged if they’re hungry or tired.

If your listeners are fidgety, disengaged, or restless, offer them a break — or end the session early if the format allows. Giving people time to disconnect allows them to come back to the topic refreshed later. There’s no point in sticking it out if they won’t retain anything.

Final thoughts

When you learn to successfully read the room, you and the people you’re speaking to get more out of your conversation. Reading the room helps you adjust (in real time) to make sure communication is clear. However, it also helps you hear what’s not being said. This can help you draw out concerns, confusion, frustration, and anything else that muddles your message.

Learning to read the room takes practice. Work with a friend, coach, or mentor to build your self-awareness and communication skills. You’ll find that, more than any other, this skill will make you a more confident and effective speaker.

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Published June 16, 2022

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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