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Read the Room to Rule Your Presentation

Have some in your audience drifted off? Not every doodler is disengaged.

By Bull Garlington

You’re killing it. Your presentation is a masterpiece of animated slides and digestible, insightful bullet points. You’re on fire, like some kind of possessed street preacher. So you think, hey, I’m gonna take a look at everyone, just a glance, to read the room.

Oh, boy. Of the 19 people seated at the massive conference room table, only a handful are engaged. You thought you had the room in the palm of your hand, but the only thing you were holding was your own attention. You realize you should have checked in with your audience earlier. You should have read the room. Now you have to win them all back.

Before your next presentation, read these quick tips on assessing your audience’s engagement and what to do to get it back.

Why Is My Team So Disengaged?

Your inner Google spins violently, searching for a reason why everyone checked out. It returns with a half-remembered listicle of all the ways to tell when you’ve lost the room. You panic because the group is hitting the first five examples. Oh, wow, is that sweat? Is your tie always this tight?

Relax. People are manufactured with no standards. One person’s apparent fervent regard is another person’s fugue of failing to fully focus. You can’t always take someone’s body language as a signal that they’ve checked out.

Everyone Has a Tell … But Not Every Tell Is Telling the Tale You Think

Reading a room is a little like playing poker. Card sharks learn to detect subtle cues other players display that indicate what they’re thinking. These are called tells. A good player will learn how Jimmy Two Chins always tugs on his ear before he folds. She can use that signal to push the bets higher and close Jimmy out.

Tells aren’t limited to poker. When you read a room, try to remember past meetings and use your experience to separate the checkouts from the truly absorbed. What does their pose really tell you? Let’s go around the table and find out before you run out of the room screaming.

Janet Is Doodling

Is there a clearer indication Janet has lost interest? She’s not even trying to hide it! She’s drawing boxes and geometric shapes, filling her legal pad. By the end of the meeting, that page will be solid black. Thanks a lot, Janet.

But maybe this is how Janet maintains focus. Doodling works wonders for people who need a fraction of diversion to allow their executive mind to stay on topic.

A 2009 study by psychologist Jackie Andrade had participants listen to a dull speech. One group doodled while they listened, the other didn’t. The doodlers recalled nearly 30 percent more of the speech. The reasons are outlined in psychological studies from 2001 onward, but they boil down to:

  • We all have a default state of mind. So when someone isn’t performing an action or engaged in active cognition, their mind reverts to their default, which for most people involves replaying their episodic memory. Our mind wanders and we daydream.
  • Engaging in non-executive functions can anchor the mind in the moment. Giving it a meaningless task like doodling keeps the mind out of its default state and in the meeting.
  • Janet’s doodles are a hyper-symbol for useful notes. They’re similar to the protolinguistic drawings and marks that early man used to make sense of the world. Although she won’t be able to cite her marginalia to prove she got your presentation, she’ll probably internalize the information as well as anyone else in the room — perhaps better.

Janet isn’t checked out. Janet’s checked in all the way.

Tommy Is Staring at Your Shoes

Your pal from accounts receivable is leaning over, elbows on his knees, fingertips lightly pressed together. He’s staring somewhere well below your slideshow with his eyebrows arched up into his hair. His head is tilted to the right and his mouth slightly open like he can’t believe you wore two-toned wingtips to work. He’s so checked out he’s about to drool.

Except he’s not. Tom has got your back. If you go back through your many meetings with Tom, you’ll remember this is his “I just thought of something highly relevant” pose. He’s about to ask a question that dovetails so seamlessly with your presentation it’s going to wake up everyone in the room.

According to body language expert and former FBI agent Joe Navarro, people lean in a little bit when they are welcoming information. They also tend to tilt their head to communicate interest. If you feel like you’re losing the room, just look at Tommy and stop talking. He’s going to leap into that space and bring the table together for you.

Hooper Is on His Phone

This guy. Hooper was checking his phone when he walked in and he’s checking it now. Every time you glance around the room his phone is in his hand. He’s not just disengaged, he’s not even in the building.

All true. But maybe cut him some slack. Think back through the last few meetings and remember: Hooper’s never on his phone. He’s so polite and considerate, he’s legally Canadian. But Hooper also has a daughter who had her tonsils out this morning and she’s not taking it well. His wife is freaked out and he’s trying to hold it together because he’s a damn professional and he believes it’ll all work out just fine. But he’s also a dad and he’s low-key freaking out, too.

Of course, you don’t know any of this. You just know Hooper’s past behavior indicates he’s probably checked out for an important reason.

Pam Has Her Arms Crossed (This Is How Your Career Ends)

It’s like you made her mad. You feel like Pam’s staring right through you. Like she’s drilling tiny little eye-sized holes through the back of your skull. Which is terrifying because Pam is a name partner and your immediate supervisor and your mentor. If she’s mad, you must be doing a terrible job and hey, look, is that window open? It’s only four floors, you’ll probably survive …

Don’t jump. Think about it: You’ve seen Pam in depositions and in court. This is her game face. This is her war mask. She’s not disengaged, she’s not mad, and she’s not boring little holes in your dome.

  • Crossed arms often signal defense, but not always. It might be a self-hug, a gesture of reassurance, a way of telling yourself, “You did good, kid.” Since Pam hired you and has been coaching you for three years, maybe the arms really signal pride.
  • It’s a power stance. Pam’s a multi-degreed name partner and patent attorney with a string of successes a mile long. She’s a scientist with an MBA and a J.D. She’s Ruth-Bader-Ginsburgian. Crossing her arms doesn’t mean she’s mad. It means she’s a badass.
  • Maybe she is staring through you, but it’s not because you’re transparently useless. It’s because she’s looking five years into your future at your name on the door. Buck up.

How to Recapture That Room

If you remember everyone’s tells, you’re less likely to lose your momentum. Sure, people will check out sometimes, but that’s the nature of this digital decade’s multitasking work style. Don’t let it destroy your mojo.

Above, we learned why these checkout poses could mean something else. But sometimes they do mean exactly what they seem to. And sometimes there are no indications you lost the room. Sometimes everyone is staring directly at you. No doodling. No phones. No power stances. Yet your intuition tells you they’ve all gone into automatic mode and that behind those attentive eyes, they’re all going over “South Park” trivia and thinking about their vacation.

Use Your Team

Think of the people we looked at earlier as your team. Since you know their tells, you know where their mind is at. If you want to recapture the room, get them involved.

  • Start with Tommy. The dude’s been poised to jump in anyway. Give him the floor. As soon as he starts talking, a murmur of re-engagement will float around the table simply because someone else is talking. However, Tommy has style. He manages to recap your last five points, expand on the most important of them, then ask a leading question that kicks the meeting back into gear. Build on that.
  • Janet’s looked up from her doodling. Toss the ball from Tommy to Janet. Ask her the most general question you can. In fact, don’t even ask her a question. Just say her name. She already has something to say. Let her take over. Tommy brought the room back. Now Janet is getting them all to lean in as she pulls a new idea out of the seemingly random sketches on her notepad. All eyes are on Janet as she wraps up and tosses the ball back to you. All those eyes follow it. You’re on.
  • You click forward three slides because Tommy and Janet covered it already. You knock out a highly energetic explanation of your final point. You’re ready to wrap up when you notice Hooper’s popped his Galaxy back into his jacket pocket and he’s looking at your slide and nodding. Instead of wrapping it up yourself, rope Hooper in for the summary. Hooper’s a genius. He’s got this.
  • Finally, make your closing remarks. And then, because you’re not an idiot, ask Pam if she’d like to comment. Two things can happen: She’ll smile and say, “Not at all, you covered everything.” Or, she’ll add a small point to expand on something you touched on, or she’ll recap the point she thinks is most important. Either way, you’re getting a raise.

Or Just Give Up

There’s a chance nothing you do will work. There’s a chance your slides and bullet points are lost on the room. There’s even a chance you did a terrible presentation — too many animations, too many dingbats, too many words. There’s a chance you might stand there, with all your experience in delivering PowerPoint decks, and realize you’ve essentially projected a poop emoji onto the wall. You could power through it and then go back to your desk and gripe.

Or, you could give up. Sometimes, such failure calls for a grand and futile gesture. Think about why you’re in that room: to explain a job. This is your work. You know it inside and out. Prove it.

Turn off the PowerPoint. Close your laptop. Bring up the lights. Then, just talk. Tell the story of the project. Talk frankly and passionately. That kind of vulnerability and honesty converts. You’ll notice the room leaning forward, hanging on every word. If you’re lucky, it’ll turn into an impromptu Q&A. And at some point, when the room is on fire and someone asks about fluid dynamic analyzation methods, you can say “Well, take a look at this …” and bring your presentation back up.

The Secret Trick to Any Presentation

All these methods work because they all do the same thing: They bring everyone on board. When you get one person involved, they suddenly become the protagonist of the meeting. That person represents everyone there so if they’re involved, everyone’s involved. The trick to engaging people is to engage people. If that sounds like a terrible motivational poster or a meme cliche, it is. But that’s because it’s true and it works. Find the way you can bring the room into the story you’re telling. Ask questions. Start a discussion. Give someone the mic. It shows trust. It shows you’re connected. It shows you’re interested as much in what they have to say as you are in saying something.

More Tips on Powering Up Your Presentations

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BULL Garlington Bull Garlington

Analog Attorney columnist Bull Garlington is an award-winning author, columnist and public speaker. He is the author of the books “Fat in Paris,” “The Full English,” “Death by Children” and “The Beat Cop’s Guide.” He prefers South American literature, classic jazz, Partagas 1945s, a decent Laphroaig, and makes a mean chicken and andouille gumbo. Follow him @bull_garlington.

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