Read the Room: Part 1 of 3

You need to deliver a killer presentation. You already know all about slide design from Presentation Zen, you’ve watched TED talks for inspiration, and you’ve practiced your power pose. However, your presentation can still fall flat if you aren’t considering and addressing the needs of your audience. No matter how great your slides are, if your message doesn’t reach your audience, you might as well be shouting into the wind.

So, how do you reach your audience?—especially an audience that you may not know very well?  You can learn to read the room. This skill takes practice (mastery of any skill requires repetition and support—that’s why we have training wheels, driver’s ed, and coaches). But over time, you can learn to gauge the audience and adjust the way you deliver your message so that it is received by the most people.

NOTE: Reading the room is not the same as pandering. Changing stances, indulging whims, or catering to differing ideologies is not the point of reading the room. Reading the room is about adjusting HOW you deliver a message. Pandering is about changing the message itself. Now that we got that out of the way, let’s focus on three strategies that can help you learn to read the room and deliver a memorable presentation for your audience.

PART 1: Before Your Presentation

Let’s start at the very beginning—before you even step in front of your audience. To be successful at reading the room, you need to commit to preparation. After awhile this preparation becomes second nature; for now, you can use these three steps.


1.    Identify your audience

Gather as much information as you can about your audience. This is easier if you are presenting to your coworkers, because you already know a lot about the people you interact with on a regular basis. It is much harder if you are presenting at a conference or for clients. However, you can still ascertain a good deal of information about your teammates, boss, conference attendees, and clients. Ask yourself:

  • What are their likes/dislikes?

Have you noticed that your teammate responds positively to facts and figures?
Incorporate more tables and charts.

Do you know that your boss doesn’t like lots of animation on slides?
Avoid unnecessary transitions and stay away from Prezi.

Does the conference have a theme or overarching mission?
Weave that theme or mission into your message to show how your information is relevant to the attendees.

Has your client shown irritation at small talk?
Get right to the point, so you don’t waste your client’s time.

  • What objections does your audience have to your topic?

Audiences can find it difficult to put aside their objections or concerns and truly listen. In fact, your audience could miss the entire purpose of your presentation if they spend the whole time worrying or wondering about their own objections to your topic. Their concerns may be valid or frivolous. It doesn’t matter. If your audience is thinking about their own objections, they aren’t listening to you.

If you can determine what concerns your audience may have, you can customize your presentation to address these concerns early on. That way, your audience gets some closure and can focus on your content instead of being distracted by their own thoughts.

 So, start looking for clues about your audiences’ objections. Here are some telltale signs you can look for in emails or conversations before the presentation:

 “I’m not sure that this will work.”

“This plan doesn’t account for…”

“We need to consider this from all angles.”

  • What are they going to ask?

The audience’s objections may come up during the Q&A session. What questions will they ask? Hint: they have probably already asked you! Again, look carefully at email and conversations you have had about the topic:

“Where will the funding come from?”

“Have you even considered that…?”

“How could we possibly…?”

Facing your audience during Q & A can be unnerving, but you can prepare and look like a rock star when you are able to calmly answer their questions. Spend some time preparing your answers (and supporting slides or back up slides) to each of their concerns. Or even better, answer the questions within the body of your presentation.

2.    Consider Attitude (theirs AND yours!)

Excitement about a topic is infectious. Your energy and enthusiasm can influence your audience in very positive ways. One of my favorite examples of this is the documentary Sriracha. Yes, really. A documentary about a spicy condiment. Not something that I thought I would ever want to watch. But, David Tran, the owner of Huy Fong, which produces the hot sauce, is so enthusiastic, passionate, and authentic that it makes this documentary compelling and entertaining. His attitude influences the audiences’ attitude about his delicious spicy sauce. Or consider Hans Rosling (if you haven’t watched any of his TED talks, stop reading this now and go watch at least one!). He speaks about global health and economics—topics not exactly on the top of everyone’s list of favorite things. However, when he talks, you can’t help but want to know more, more, more!

Check your attitude and the attitude of your audience with these three questions:

  1. Are you excited about and engaged with the topic?
    If you aren’t excited about your topic, then you can’t expect your audience to be excited either.
  2. Are you trying to convince your audience to change their mind about something?
    If so, you have more work to do than if you are presenting a topic your audience already supports.
  3. What outside factors could influence your audiences’ attitudes?
    Are you presenting before/after lunch? Last thing on a Friday before a long weekend? At the end of the conference? After the boss has delivered bad news? Most likely, you can’t control any of these, but you can acknowledge them and try to redirect your audience’s attention.

You may never be as passionate as David Tran is about hot sauce or Hans Rosling is about global health and economics, but you can work to portray interest and commitment. If you are not feeling particularly passionate about your topic, these three techniques can help you “fake it until you feel it.”

  • Vary your tone and pace—nothing says boring more than monotone.
  • Smile! Smiling makes a difference in your tone of voice and then your audience may be more likely to smile too.
  • Find something about your presentation that you can get excited about and emphasize that part. Remember, if you are bored, so is your audience. So, make them see the spark in your presentation.

 3.    Prepare

Outline your presentation and prepare your slides with your audience in mind. I hope by this point that you are noticing a trend—presentations are all about your audience. Once you create your slides, you may think you are finished. This is where many presentations go wrong—slides that don’t provide information that the audience wants. To avoid this problem, go through every single slide and determine WIIFT—What’s In It For Them (meaning your audience). If you can’t articulate in one sentence WHY that slide is there, then change it, move it, or delete it!

Practice. Do I need to tell you to practice? You know this already, right? Unfortunately this step is often skipped. Maybe you ran out of time. Maybe practicing feels just as anxiety producing as actually presenting. Or maybe you feel pretty comfortable speaking in front of people and don’t think you need to practice. DON’T SKIP PRACTICE. Practice will help eliminate many problems and will make your presentation so much better. With practice you can reduce your filler words (um, ah, right?, like…), seem more confident and knowledgeable, and more effectively read the room.

Know your stuff. Know your audience, know your content, know your slides. Because you can’t read the room if you are frantically trying to figure out what your audience wants, what you are going to say next, or which slide is going to appear.

Next up: Read the Room, Part 2: During the Presentation


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