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July 2024
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Analyzing Your Audience

Why reading the room isn’t always reliable.

By Christine Clapp, DTM

Blurred group of audience members listening to someone speak

While delivering a speech, have you noticed someone fiddling with their phone, furrowing their brow, fidgeting in their seat, or failing to make eye contact? Perhaps these observations undermined your confidence because you concluded that listeners thought you were an ineffective presenter.

Please stop!

Facial expressions and body language are notoriously bad indicators of audience attitudes. After all, there are good explanations for these behaviors: The person fiddling with their phone may be taking notes; a furrowed brow may indicate intense concentration; and the individual fidgeting in their seat or avoiding eye contact may be neurodivergent, which can make it uncomfortable to make lasting eye contact or to sit still for an extended time.

Take it from three presentation experts who know firsthand that trying to read nonverbal behaviors is an unreliable way to gauge how an audience feels about a presentation. Learn what you can do instead when nonverbal behaviors seem to suggest disinterest or disagreement, and how to collect more trustworthy feedback.

Don’t Read the Room

“You should never try to read the room. It’s impossible,” says Chris Graham, a Toronto-based speaker coach and keynote speaker at TellPeople, who argues that it is as easy to read the room as it is to read minds. “Based on my personal experience, 100% of the time somebody in the audience looks like they want to punch me in the face,” he notes. “Lots of people have very aggressive listening faces.”

Graham recalls a listener shaking their head back and forth, as if saying “no,” whenever he made a point. During a break, Graham approached the person and said, “I see you shaking your head and I’m curious about your disagreement.” They responded, “I didn’t know that I do that.” Once aware of the nonverbal behavior, the person stopped shaking their head for the rest of Graham’s session.

David Henderson, Toastmasters’ 2010 World Champion of Public Speaking, is a speaking coach and a civil-rights lawyer. Similarly to Graham, Henderson learned early in his legal career not to trust facial expressions and the body language of audience members.

He says misreading listeners can go two ways: assuming listeners don’t like you when they do, and assuming they agree with you when they don’t. “The law firm that I started my career practicing at used to send all the fifth-year litigation associates to this weeklong trial-training seminar,” says Henderson. “They would always come back and say that they were shocked because the jurors in a simulated trial who seem like they’re with you—they’re nodding along and smiling at you from the jury box—always go against you in the back room, which you actually get to see because it’s not a real trial and you are able to watch the jury deliberate.”

Because many listeners are unaware of their nonverbal behaviors, Graham recommends ignoring them, though it can be difficult. He suggests that speakers draw on the more common experience of talking to someone in everyday conversation who doesn’t make the facial expression you expect. For example, you likely have continued to smile when speaking to an attendant at a service desk who exhibited gruff behaviors, continued to try to look at the eyes of a colleague who stared at their computer and typed vigorously during a meeting, and continued to engage in conversation with a teenager who was more preoccupied with their phone than you. The exact same perseverance that allows you to manage these behaviors in one-on-one situations is helpful in front of a room, too.

Henderson knows this phenomenon is especially prevalent on Zoom where self-awareness of nonverbal behaviors can be even lower than during in-person encounters. While he doesn’t want speakers to make assumptions about what a specific listener is thinking or feeling based on their facial or body movements, he does suggest that speakers pay close attention if they get an immediate nonverbal response to something they say or if they see trends among audience members.

“Are there specific times in your presentation when you notice quite a few people are on their phones? What that’s telling you is that your presentation is failing in those moments,” Henderson explains. “You’ve got to go back and figure out how to adjust. You keep working on your speech until people aren’t reaching for their phones at those points. That’s how you get better.”

Find Connection in Advance

Graham also warns against changing course mid-speech based on a listener’s nonverbals. “Even if you wanted to respond differently to someone’s facial expression, what else would you say? You spent all this time preparing speaking material. It seems very unlikely that your spontaneous change of course would be better than what you spent hours preparing.”

Instead of responding in the moment, he suggests using prior preparation to increase the chance your message resonates. “Try to schedule a call beforehand with an event organizer to learn what audience members worry about and find a few stories about them that you can incorporate into the presentation.”

Cathey Armillas, DTM, a member of Toastmasters for Speaking Professionals in Portland, Oregon, is an international speaker and speaker coach. Like Graham, she wants speakers to focus on doing the heavy lifting before a presentation to ensure material will resonate rather than waiting to read the room.

When you sense someone with negative energy in your audience, intentionally focus attention on the person in the room who is giving you the most positive energy.

“I teach the ‘I-You Balance,’” Armillas shares. “You have to think if it’s about them or about you. Stories are from you but for them. Presentation content is from you but for them. If you aren’t making material for your audience, you are doing it wrong, and I don’t have to be in the room to tell you that they aren’t with you.”

Armillas believes there are strategies speakers can use to respond to unfavorable nonverbal behaviors. First, she encourages nervous and novice speakers to take a cue from the American singer-songwriter Neil Diamond, who she has seen in concert kneel and sing directly to an adoring fan in the front row. The whole audience gets goosebumps because they can feel the positive connection between singer and fan. She calls this the Neil Diamond Effect and has used it successfully in presentations.

Here’s how you can, too: When you sense someone with negative energy in your audience, intentionally focus attention on the person in the room who is giving you the most positive energy. “Look directly at that person and get close to them,” instructs Armillas. “Cling onto their positive energy, which then catches on fire and helps dissipate the negative energy. It’s like spraying an air freshener of positivity.” It should take just a few seconds for the rest of the audience to pick up on that person’s positive energy.

For seasoned presenters, Armillas advises you cultivate awareness of the overall energy in the room. If the energy feels low, be ready to change gears by acknowledging a story wasn’t resonating and telling a different one, cutting the PowerPoint and talking for a while without slides, or getting the audience physically engaged in a discussion, show of hands, or other activity.

Effective Feedback Strategies

When you encounter a listener with negative facial expressions or body language, there are options—from completely ignoring it to focusing on an audience member displaying positive nonverbals instead. But ultimately, reading nonverbal behaviors is not the best way to gauge audience opinions.

To get a more accurate read of audience member reactions, speakers should select a method of gathering feedback appropriate to the situation. Some strategies to consider:

  • A questionnaire to survey audience members
  • A series of debrief conversations with some or all audience members
  • A test at the beginning of a training program or informative presentation and a test at the end to measure what was learned

Until you have data to suggest otherwise, it’s best to stay optimistic and assume positive intent on behalf of your audience members. This will allow you to speak confidently and not get thrown off needlessly when you see an errant glance at a phone or an occasional glare from the back of the room.


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