My Blog Had a Bigger Audience Than PR Week: The Rest of the Story
For decades in the latter half of the 20th century, the velvety voice of Paul Harvey entertained...
When you’re trying to earn someone’s trust—whether it’s in a business meeting, during a virtual presentation, or in a social media comments section—it helps to know how to read the room. In order to build this trust, you need to understand what your audience is interested in and what makes them feel comfortable.
Unfortunately, this isn’t always easy. People are complex, and their reactions can be hard to predict. But there are some methods you can use to get a better sense of the situation and make sure you’re on the right track.
In this blog post, we'll share advice on reading the room in three specific situations:
By the end of this post, you'll have a better understanding of how to read the room and earn your audience's trust—no matter what situation you're in.
So let's get started!
Reading the room means understanding the nonverbal cues of the people around you in order to gauge their reaction to what you’re saying or doing.
Reading the room is important because it allows you to adjust your approach on the fly, based on how your audience is reacting. If you can read the room, you can avoid saying or doing something that will make people uncomfortable, which will in turn help you earn their trust.
Taking the time to acknowledge their implicit responses and adjust your approach also demonstrates your investment in their comfort and awareness of their needs, letting them know that you are keen to facilitate an open and supportive environment.
In-person meetings have become less common with the rise in remote work, but the skill of reading the room in person is still vital to success. Whether it’s a sales pitch to new clients or an operational meeting with colleagues, a lot can hinge on how well you are able to assess a number of key factors:
The interpersonal dynamics of the room are the foundation of any in-person meeting. Any contextual knowledge of the people present is valuable (for example, which individuals are sitting next to each other and what their relationships are to one another), but there are also some straightforward and visually obvious things you can look out for.
Who looks happy to be there? How is everyone’s posture and body language? Is everyone seated, or are some people standing? Does everyone have the same status in terms of their placement in the room, or do some people have more favorable positions? What does this mean in terms of power dynamics and engagement?
By ensuring that you are aware of these dynamics, you can tailor your approach accordingly and do your best to guarantee everyone in the room is properly engaged, and that all key stakeholders in the situation are included.
Part of reading the room is making sure you don’t dominate the space and giving room to others to make their voices heard. By showing you are actively listening, and tailoring your responses effectively to what’s being said, you will foster a more open environment for discussion and feedback where you can get the most out of everybody in the room.
If you’re not under pressure to be constantly leading the conversation, this will give you time to sit back and read any non-verbal cues that are being given by any non-speakers. Do they seem to be in agreement with the course of the conversation? Is there anyone who seems visually unhappy, or seems overly reserved about giving their opinions?
Be aware that other people will likely be applying the same measures to you. When others are speaking, be sure to demonstrate your own receptiveness through clear eye contact, raised eyebrows and a warm smile. It can be a natural response to frown when digesting information, but by doing so you could be giving off the wrong impression and as a result shut down any direction that the speaker is going in.
Bear in mind that whatever the specific nature or purpose of the meeting you are in, there will be a much wider background and web of context that everyone will be bringing into it and taking out of it.
Many macro and micro factors will be at play here. What is happening within the specific company or relevant department? Are there any large developments in the market sector or wider economy to take into account? Are there likely to be any key objectives that the stakeholders in the room will be working towards?
Knowing these things before going into the room will also help you to adapt and improve your own responses, for example by addressing a certain topic more sensitively or capitalizing on its importance to those present. It also means you can do your best to avoid being drawn into any potentially negative exchanges that may take place, or at least keep your cool through them since they haven’t caught you by surprise!
As mentioned previously, dominating the conversation in any meeting is going to be counterproductive. However, knowing how to demonstrate effective leadership through facilitation is an important and often understated skill.
By enthusiastically offering support for someone else expressing a viewpoint that you agree with, defusing any tension with humor or empathy, and asking less engaged individuals for their thoughts and elaborations, you are subtly guiding the tone of the room in a direction that works best for you.
On top of this, many people will notice at least subliminally what you are doing and appreciate you for it. By effectively offering stewardship of proceedings, you will establish yourself as a positive presence and others will be more inclined to think and act positively towards you afterward.
Reading the virtual room is effectively a whole new science, and one that can seem pretty daunting even for the most experienced business professional. However, with the new technological setting comes a whole raft of telltale signs that you can look out for when making observations and assessments of the meeting’s participants.
It can be crucial to pick up on these, since the fast-developing phenomenon of ‘webinar fatigue’ is likely to be influencing the behavior of everyone in your online meeting.
While the environment is different, a number of the skills we discussed in reading the physical room can also be effectively translated to reading the virtual room, with some minor adjustments.
Key things to look out for include:
Shutting off can take many forms, but it is essentially a way of removing yourself from the immediate conversation. For example, somebody might mute their microphone and/or sound from the virtual call to talk to somebody else in the same physical space as them, or otherwise switch off their camera for a similar purpose.
Setting out some clear expectations around etiquette at the beginning of the call can be a great way to avoid any awkward or potentially confrontational discussions within the meeting.
Zoning out takes some pretty familiar forms that are as relevant for in-person meetings as they are for virtual ones. If somebody’s eyes are constantly straying away from the call, or cast down for most of the conversation, then the chances are they are only partially listening at best. In order to bring them back into the conversation, make sure to direct questions their way that can bring them more fully into the dynamic of the meeting.
Something like working on a separate project on your laptop or using your mobile phone would generally be a huge faux pas during an in-person meeting, but being removed from a physical space can give people license to do things they otherwise might never dream of during a meeting.
Darting or downcast eyes could again be a key indicator of this kind of distraction, but it sometimes can be difficult to detect. By making sure that the meeting is interactive, and includes regular activities that require input from participants, you can help to ensure that everyone’s mind is staying firmly on the task at hand.
Although it can be harder to pick up non-verbal cues through a Zoom call, the technology involved in a virtual meeting can actually make it easier to capture the ideas and thoughts of everybody involved, particularly those who might be less confident to speak up or who want to avoid interrupting.
In particular, the in-built chat function of Zoom or separate professional chat services like Slack and Discord can be excellent forums for picking up as much input as possible, so make sure to encourage their use as much as you can.
In the modern-day marketplace of ideas, social media can often feel like a wide-open and exposed place for any company. However, when used correctly, social media can be an extremely powerful tool for research—to "read the room" of online sentiment.
Due to the way social media platforms are designed, users tend to express their thoughts and opinions quite openly. This makes it easy to get a sense of what people are thinking and how they feel about certain topics.
To make sure you stay on top of things, here are a few best practices to follow:
Tracking your baseline social media numbers, and improvement over time, is the starting point to seeing where you stand with your audiences. This includes metrics such as:
If your audience is growing and engaging with your content more over time, it indicates that you are doing a good job of reading the room and giving them what they want.
Focusing on just the stats, however, means you run the risk of missing the forest for the trees. Social media can be a volatile place, and all too often things blow up and go viral for the wrong reasons. That's why social listening, using monitoring tools by Sprout Social and others, is so important.
By closely reading what people are specifically commenting on your posts, and looking out for any key themes or phrases, you can make sure you’re hitting the mark with any messaging that you’re putting out.
All too often, a company’s social media presence can feel perfunctory and labored. Obligatory and repetitive posts for the sake of posting often fall flat in terms of engagement and don’t invite any back-and-forth.
By actively engaging with customers on your social media, and in particular reaching out in instances of both good and bad feedback, you can nourish a culture of communication on your pages.
With so much information to be found online, you’re likely to spread yourself thin trying to cover too many bases. By working out the particular niches that your brand knows best, you can focus on these areas and really make them your own.
This way, you can ensure that when people think of a particular service or concept, it’s your name that will come up first on social media.
Ultimately, so many of the skills and approaches discussed in this article are going to come down to practice and application. You’re more than welcome to keep this bookmarked in your web browser, to refer back to as a refresher whenever you have a big meeting coming up.
Ben is a freelance copywriter, voice actor, and education specialist. He obtained a Bachelor of Arts (BA) focused on English Language and Literature from King's College London.
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