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Work Daze: Reading the Room

Just because there’s a degree from Harvard Business School on my resume doesn’t mean I’m a snob. It also doesn’t mean I went to Harvard Business School, but that’s another story.

I did read a recent issue of Harvard Business Review in the waiting area of a discount tattoo parlor, which is pretty much the same thing as attending Harvard and a whole lot cheaper.

One article that spoke to me was by Rebecca Knight — “Tips for Reading the Room Before a Meeting or Presentation.”

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Frankly, I don’t think you need much help understanding the mood of the room when you stand up to speak in a meeting. That loud communal groan is an expression of joy as your co-workers realize they will be lucky enough to hear your opinions. The loud applause when you sit down confirms that your contribution was the most spellbinding and insightful two hours of the entire meeting.

The difficulty others have in the science of room reading may explain why meetings and presentations are so deadly dull when anyone but you is talking.

That’s where Rebecca Knight comes in.

“The best way to read a room is to pay close attention to people — and not just what they are saying,” Knight writes. The focus should be on “microexpressions,” which are defined as fleeting smiles, raised eyebrows or even tiny frowns.”

I agree. Be aware and try to notice subtle clues, like when a person in your meeting sticks out their tongue in the middle of your presentation, or your manager puts a finger to their tongue and pretends to be barfing.

Microexpressions like these shouldn’t stop you. Keeping talking until all the expressions you see, micro and macro, can only be interpreted as complete boredom and utter hopelessness. Those are expressions you can easily read, since you see them so often.

Another way to take the temperature of meeting attendants is to be sensitive to “reverberating tension” in the meeting room. If you feel it, don’t let yourself “be hijacked by negative energy.”

Instead, demonstrate positivity by fainting. As you fall to the floor and start babbling incoherently, everyone will be impressed. “She’s obviously ill,” they think. “But listen — she’s giving her presentation anyway.”

One way to improve your room-reading skills is to follow up with participants in private. “About two hours into the meeting, when I turned my back to write on the white board, I noticed Jim pretended to make a rope and hang himself,” you begin. “I think Jim may be depressed. How soon can we get Jim the help he needs by getting him fired?”

If the entire meeting or presentation is getting heated up or bogged down, your skills at room reading can turn it around. The problem is probably that you are not talking enough, but just in case there are other reasons behind the negativity, it is possible, according to author and educator Annie McKee, to “shift the emotional reality of the room.”

One of the most powerful tools you can use in these situations is humor. As a master storyteller, you could interrupt your fascinating presentation on log-linear present-value approaches to price synchronicity to tell a surefire, crowd-pleasing joke.

“Three high-level company executives and an elephant walk into a bar. ‘What can I get you,’ the bartender asks. ‘Doesn’t really matter,’ the elephant answers. ‘The entire company is being moved to Bangladesh.'”

Be sure to wait until the laughter subsides before continuing.

One extremely useful tip from Annie McKee is to determine who in the room “has the most social or hierarchical capital” and then “focus on the getting that person on your side.”

That person could have the most seniority or “be the person who others are sitting closest to.”

Not likely.

The person who everyone is sitting close to is the person who is drawing X-rated cartoons about you, and letting those close to him take a peek. The person you want on your side is the attendee the others sit as far away from as possible. That’s the person who has the power in the room, or it’s the person who had a Limburger and liverwurst sandwich for lunch.

On a positive note, the article suggests you keep your eye out for any positive signals, like “the executive in the corner who’s smiling.”

It’s a lovely thought, but it won’t work. In your company, executives never smile. It’s not personal. They just don’t know how.

Bob Goldman was an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company, but he finally wised up and opened Bob Goldman Financial Planning in Sausalito, California. He now works out of Bellingham, Washington. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at bob@bgplanning.com. To find out more about Bob Goldman, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.

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