There’s already a silent orchestra playing as you enter your presentation room: it’s the unheard conversation of your attendees’ metacommunication—all the nonverbal cues of how someone is feeling and what they’re thinking.

And if you’re not paying attention, you’re missing out on a great concert.

Metacommunication (coined by Gregory Bateson in the 1970s) is about the underlying message behind what someone is saying. It’s about understanding all the nonverbal cues (like the tone of voice, body language, facial expression, and more) to detect what someone is actually thinking of feeling.

And if you can figure that out, then you’re off to a flying start for your presentation, because you’ll be able to adjust your message accordingly.

Reading the room before and during your presentation is key to delivering your message successfully.

Presenters need to be self-aware and able to assess how their attendees are responding to the presentation. Interpreting verbal and nonverbal cues comes naturally to some presenters; for others, it’s a learned behaviour, and this post will help!

Prepare to read the room the right way

You know how sometimes the hair on the back of your neck stands up? Or when you just feel a couple’s been arguing just before you join them, despite their smiling facade? Goose pimples? A feeling of being at ease?

That’s intuition, that gut instinct that tells you when something’s not quite right. There’s a subtle energy around you. Be calm and listen and remember what you’re feeling as you enter the room.

Remember how you feel, but as you prepare to read the audience, try not to make too many inferences: check your own assumptions at the door, and try not to project your own feelings on your audience.

Before your presentation, consider this:

  • What do you already know about your audience?
  • Are they likely to be bored, tired, excited, aggressive?
  • Who’s sitting next to whom?
  • Who’s wearing the power suits?
  • Are they standing? Sitting?
  • What are their motivations for being at your presentation?
  • What do they want to know?

Don’t worry too much about trying to interpret what every single person is feeling or thinking. Your instinct will give you clues, but it won’t be the whole story, so keep things in perspective.

After all, while your presentation may be the most important thing in your day, to your audience, it may just be one of many things.

Become a metacommunication expert

Body language is a really important form of unconscious communication, and our metacommunication often gives us away. Just ask the makers of Lie to Me!

If you’re not an expert in body language, here are some techniques that can help you understand what someone is truly feeling – but keep in mind that these are clues, not truths etched in stone.

They should help you read a room, but they won’t give you all the answers. (You knew there was some work you had to do, right?)

Read the posture and body language

Check the room for people’s postures and movements. Are they sitting or standing? Are they holding their heads high or are they hunched down over the table? How are they sitting in their chairs?

  • Moving around the room or tapping feet? This may indicate nervous energy or a little anxiety.
  • Eyes rolling or drifting? They’re bored. Or think they’re too smart for your presentation.
  • Heads held high? Often a sign of confidence and assertiveness.
  • Sitting tightly and alone? You may have someone very shy or uncomfortable about being there.
  • Two people leaning in towards each other? They’re probably quite comfortable around each other.
  • Crossed arms or legs? This could indicate defensiveness or anger.
  • Biting lips or nails? Maybe they’re feeling stressed or awkward.
  • Looking at a watch constantly? They’re in a hurry, and you’re not moving fast enough.
  • Deep frowns or pursed lips? Good chance they’re stressed or unhappy about something.
  • Shuffling papers, leaning over to chat to someone, or looking dazed? You’ve probably lost them and they’re confused.
  • Speaking too loudly? Too often? You’ve got yourself an alpha, potentially a disruptor!
  • Eyes looking at you, sitting comfortably? Well done, you’ve hit the jackpot: they’re listening and engaged.

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Adjust your message

Good presenters know that they’re the ones who have to adjust to their audience, not the other way around. So once you’ve checked the room and have a good idea of the nonverbal, here’s what you can do to improve the situation.

1. Breathe deeply, and smile

Feeling positive and calm yourself will give you the time and awareness to read the room. And good vibes are contagious!

2. Greet people as they come in

A quick hello and handshake goes a long way to making people feel at ease individually before being seated as a group.

3. Start with an interesting poll or quiz

Icebreakers and interactions make people feel more comfortable with you – and with each other. Ask a question on your slide and get everyone to answer on their mobiles with PollEverywhere, Mentimeter, or Sli.do. Use them throughout your presentation.

4. Speak slowly, but succinctly

People get anxious when they’re not understanding something, or testy when it’s taking too long. Check the room for understanding then move on.

5. Pause and allow interruptions for questions

Check in with them every now and then and ask questions to see if they’re all with you. Allow them to interrupt you, within reason, for questions.

6. Change your position

If you’ve been standing, sit. And if you’ve been sitting, move around the room to add a little energy. The change in position will make them look up at you.

7. Diffuse disruptive behaviour

If one or more attendees is being disruptive, acknowledge it – everyone else is seeing it too. Tell them you’ll take questions at the end. Without blaming them, you can also candidly tell them that for the benefit of the group, it’s better if they can voice their objections to you privately or by email at the end of the presentation.

8. Acknowledge the room energy

If people are looking at their watches, check in with them: tell them that you see that maybe you’re not covering enough ground for them – how can you use the remaining time more efficiently? If they look tired or hungry, encourage them to hang on until lunchtime, or reassure them that they’ll have all the knowledge they need by the end of the day and redirect their attention.

9. Take a break

If people are getting fidgety, take a 5-minute coffee break, or break them out into groups to answer a question or perform a pre-arranged activity.

10. Don’t single anyone out

If you’re seeing one or two furrowed brows, reiterate things for the entire group, and reassure everyone that you’re available for questions and by email afterward.

11. Give the floor over to others

It’s a risk, but often a good one to take. Invite your attendees to voice their concerns or questions – this creates a sudden halt that’s sure to get everyone’s attention back on track.

12. Skip some details

If people are not as engaged as you’d like them to be, it’s ok to skip some of the details. There’s no point plugging on if they’re only half-listening. Give them the most important takeaways.

13. Keep reading the room

Even if things are going well, keep monitoring and reading the room for any change in attitude. Refocus your energy and theirs.

14. Make it better next time

Learn from the room – what are your own takeaways? What did you feel you did well, what could you do better next time? Take the time to reflect and prepare for the next presentation.

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