Tips for being a better public speaker, presenter, or performer typically include the advice to “know your audience”—as in, understanding what matters most to the people you’re addressing. But knowing your audience often requires another skill: The ability to read a room.
While some people are naturally more adept at active observation, others need to develop the skill in practice before mastering it. Whether you’re an expert or novice, here are some of the most effective ways to read a room.
How to read a room
To “read a room” (or “read the room”) means to pay attention to the people you’re addressing—either in the same literal or figurative room—in order to pick up on social cues, the tone of the ongoing conversation, and the overall atmosphere, then making decisions based on those observations.
If that sounds easier said than done, or you’re not sure where to start, here are three strategies that can help:
Start actively listening the moment you enter the room—even before the meeting or event begins. What do you notice about the collective tone? Do people generally sound excited? Annoyed? Disgruntled? Are people joking around, or is there more of a solemn, tense, or serious vibe?
Reading a room means identifying the collective emotional state in a room and meeting people where they are.
Let other people speak
In order to actively listen to what’s going on in a room, you can’t talk nonstop. Don’t be afraid of what you perceive to be awkward silences; instead, let them breathe, and use them as an opportunity to take in your environment and the people in it.
This doesn’t mean you should always sit in meetings silently, never contributing, interjecting with ideas, or speaking up for yourself, but if your goal is learning to read a room, your focus should be on other people.
Observe nonverbal cues
Reading the room is all about picking up on subtleties, like facial expressions, body language, posture, who is seated versus standing, who is sitting together, the direction are people facing, and where their gaze is focused.
In addition, keep an eye out for what Annie McKee, a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of How to Be Happy at Work, calls “quick microexpressions,” which can include things like “fleeting smiles, raised eyebrows, or even tiny frowns.”
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