In the quest among business people to bolster their executive presence, the ability to “read the room” while giving a presentation or speech, is now considered a must-have skill. I agree it’s important. By either fidgeting in their seats, yawning or whipping out their smartphones, your audience is providing valuable analytics into just how engaging (or not) you are. Failure to detect these signs and use them to help streamline your content and sharpen your delivery is a sure-fire way to remain stuck in public speaking mediocrity.
But here’s a somewhat counterintuitive warning: Don’t go overboard. Don’t over read your audience. Here’s why.
Dedicating too much of your mental bandwidth to getting far inside the heads of your audience gets you too far back on your heels and distracts you from the task at hand. Plus most of us are terrible mind readers. It’s a given that some audience members will look completely bored, confused or annoyed, even when they are actually anything but. Countless times during my own presentations, I have had a member of the audience, who appeared either totally zoned-out or confused during my presentation, come up to me afterwards and say, “Wow, I found your talk really fascinating!”
When audience members sport a “bitchy resting face” however, it’s hard not to keep looking back in their direction. We do it because we want to make sure that at some point they snapped out of their stupor and became riveted by our performance. Try hard to resist this temptation. Once I’ve spotted the handful of audience members who are frozen in a lifeless, lobotomized listening expression, I treat them like a solar eclipse – I never let my eyes drift in their direction again.
The same holds true for spotting people on their mobile devices. Once, during a presentation of mine, I couldn’t help but notice a man in the back row whose thumbs were in overdrive on his mobile device. During a short break I asked him, “I hope you’re not dealing with some emergency back at the office,” (my subtle way of calling him out on it.) To my delight, he said, “Oh no, I’m just really good at taking notes on my phone.” So now when I see the top of someone’s head in the audience and the light from their screen reflecting off their face, I convince myself that they’re taking copious notes. Why should you allow any other thought to compromise your confidence?
Just about all of us at some time or another is susceptible to that evil little voice on our shoulder that whispers, “You’re bombing up here.” That voice tricks us into thinking that the audience is waiting for us to screw up so they can start Tweeting about the horribly boring talk they are being forced to sit through. Always remind yourself that the audience is actually pulling for you to be great.