One of the most important soft skills to develop in business is the ability to accurately read the room. You can be the most intelligent, knowledgeable person in a meeting or presentation, but if you can’t assess the mood of your audience or decipher the environmental clues, you’re not going to perform as well as you’d hoped. With that in mind, here’s some advice in how to gauge the room and correct issues that come up.
Many salespeople are so externally focused (actively listening to a prospect, for example) that they fail to pay attention to what they themselves are doing, and in doing so, miss out on behaviors that are negatively impacting their audience. We often hear from sales professionals who are very advanced in their technical knowledge, but aren’t hitting their target numbers. In many cases, what happens is they use a lot of high-level, subject-specific jargon that their audience, who isn’t nearly as versed in the technology, doesn’t understand. As a result, both the audience and the sales opportunity is lost.
Pay attention to non-verbal cues, but be careful of misinterpretation.
There’s a lot of information and literature out there about how to understand nonverbal communication, and while it’s a good thing to have knowledge of, be aware of the following caveats: 1) this can be culturally based – for example, what one nonverbal cue might mean in the Southern United States, it could mean something entirely different in Europe. 2) These signifiers are by no means universal. That client who’s frowning throughout your presentation? The frown could just be his default thinking expression as he’s mulling over what you’re talking about, or he could be pondering what he wants for dinner that night. That said, if there’s numerous sighs around the room, or confused stares, that’s an obvious signal you need to change things up.
Consider Kantor’s Theory of Structural Dynamics.
Renowned systems psychologist David Kantor has devised a system called the Theory of Structural Dynamics. In essence, the system says that any given conversation is a constantly moving force, with actions and reactions that affect the direction of the discussion and how it ultimately plays out. The theory also points out different ways power and authority can be distributed within a group setting, and those are also key to consider in any meeting situation.
We won’t delve into specifics here, as one could literally write an entire paper just about the theory itself, but the important thing to keep in mind is that by understanding the Theory of Structural Dynamics, you can see the lines of action and reaction during a meeting, where the centers of power lie within the group, and tailor the meeting or presentation to account for these factors and flows – whether beforehand by knowing where authority and power exist in the group, or during the actual meeting itself by recognizing where the lines of action and reaction are going. In the latter case, you can tack and shift direction to accommodate the prevailing winds to keep the meeting on a course of smooth sailing.
For example, let’s say you’re making a presentation to a group of decision makers to try and close a sale. There’s been considerable back and forth over the merits and possible objections to your product and the room seems evenly split. You notice that there’s one person in particular, whom we’ll call Henry, that everyone else keeps looking at, and who hasn’t said anything. Using Kantor’s Theory, you recognize that Henry is the center of power and that he’s presently a bystander, so you focus your attention on him to win him over, realizing that if you capture his support, the others will fall into line.
Seek feedback during your discussions.
One of the things that effective presenters do is check in periodically with their audience – for example, they’ll say something like, “What questions do you have about XYZ’s features?”. What’s important here is that it isn’t just a single shot delivery of a deluge of information – it occurs frequently throughout and allows for the following: 1) a natural break in the presentation for the audience to reflect and assess, 2) the presenter to diagnose where there’s still uncertainty or a need for further clarification, and 3) a chance for the presenter to catch their breath. Notice also that it’s an open-ended question, not just a yes/no of asking if people have questions. It’s also specific and provides a direction for the discussion – namely looking at XYZ’s features, as opposed to asking the more generic, “What questions do you have?”. Remember, as a presenter, you’re taking on a leadership and guidance role in the meeting, and that carries a lot of authority.
Make adjustments as needed.
Let’s say in the course of the meeting, things get tense. A well-timed joke can relieve the tension, introducing laughter and levity to lower the emotional temperature. Or if you’re in a situation where some of your audience isn’t understanding what you’re saying (such as the sales engineer in the first example), think of ways to restate the information to see if they understand it.
Consider consulting with people who present frequently.
There’s sometimes no better way to learn than by talking to people who are experts in a field, or even simply who do something every single day. In this case, frequent presenters include field sales reps who are constantly out of the office visiting prospects; motivational speakers who address large audiences; or training facilitators who, like university professors, present daily or near-daily to diverse groups of people.
There’s a lot of things you can do to improve your ability to read a room – whether it’s presenting to a prospect or an office meeting with co-workers. Knowing yourself, keeping Kantor’s theory in mind, understanding when and how to change direction, and consulting with experts are all things that will improve your emotional intelligence and empathy, making your meetings much more productive and smooth.