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Read the Room – An Important Skill for School Leaders

Written by: Lisa Sheehan
Published on: Oct 17, 2022

read the room
Photo credit: New Africa/Adobe Stock

A group of aspiring school leaders sent in videos that aimed to demonstrate their group process skills. As I evaluated those snippets, I became distracted watching the teachers in the audience. My attention went to those listening rather than focusing on what some of the potential administrators had to say.

The issue was clear. In the videos showcasing more skilled leaders, the audience was alert and attentive. Less effective leaders spoke to disengaged audiences whose body language screamed, “Just get this over with!”

There’s a reason for that discrepancy.

As a school leader, you are placed in front of a crowd on an ongoing basis. Your audience can be as small as a team of teachers, a working committee, a student’s parents, or an interview with teacher candidates. In addition, you have regular faculty meetings, parent organization meetings, district meetings, and teacher trainings.

When you are leading a group, you have two choices.

  1. You can “stand and deliver” regardless of the reaction, participation, or engagement of the audience members. Echoes of “Anyone? Anyone?” from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off come to mind. How the audience receives and responds to the message isn’t really important to you. Your primary goal is to disseminate information.
  • You can read the room. Nonverbal language can be much louder, with greater implications, than the spoken word. It is critical that you respond to your audience when presenting. If you want them to not only hear the message but listen to the message, you have to learn how to read your audience’s responses and tailor your presentation to meet their needs.

Here are suggestions for how to read the audience and deliver your message regardless of the type of crowd you’re speaking to.

Understanding the Purpose of Your Presentation

You, first, must start with the purpose of your meeting and message. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Why are you having this meeting?
  • Who is your audience? What do you need to keep in mind when speaking to them, either in a small setting or big one?
  • What information or learning do you want your audience to gain as a result of the meeting?

If your purpose is to simply give out information, in a one-way communication format, then you might reconsider whether an in-person meeting is appropriate. An e-mail or handout might meet your purpose just as well. Time is too precious to stand and pass on information to a passive audience.

When you have an audience in front of you, especially in the frequent faculty meetings and trainings that you will lead, you want to engage your audience. Active engagement, just like in a classroom, will improve learning and internalization of information. Prepare what information you will deliver and how. Anticipate the needs of your audience and plan accordingly. Compile materials beforehand, when appropriate.

Learning How to Read the Room

Reading your audience simply means “being observant.” Watch the people you’re speaking to and respond according to what you observe to ensure they receive your message openly.

Once you know your purpose, have your plan, and prepare all the necessary information, it’s time to read the room. You can start gathering information right away by greeting people as they come into the meeting space. As you engage people, pay attention to:

  • Facial expressions: Is your audience relaxed, smiling, and interacting animatedly with you and one another? Or are they yawning, frowning, brows furrowed, avoiding eye contact?
  • The tone in their voices: See if what people say matches how they look. “Nice to see you” may sound positive, but if the words are coupled with a tense face and tight tone, that communicates a different message.
  • Body language: Observe where and how people sit. Are they creating distance between you or each other? Are they sitting with their arms crossed?

If you see people becoming disengaged, distracted, or passive, think back to best practices when teaching. Respond to your audience’s needs. How will you get them back? What can you say to individuals or the group to reengage? For example, if it’s a long training day, you might:

  • Give breaks when people become listless.
  • Ask specific questions to individuals.
  • Break the audience up into smaller groups to discuss a key point.

It’s essential that you change what you are doing to respond to your audience rather than expecting your audience to change their behavior. You are the leader—so don’t be afraid to lead. Be intentional about what you say, how you say it, and what your body language communicates. No matter what happens, keep your tone and gestures open. Just as you should continue to read the audience, they, too, will be reading you.

The Benefits of Understanding Audience Psychology

The verbal aspect of communication is important, but it isn’t everything. If your audience doesn’t hear and internalize the message, then you have wasted your breath and their time. It’s crucial to recognize nonverbal cues and respond to meet the needs of your audience accordingly. To move your organization forward and support school culture, make connections with your audience, respond according to what you observe, and make meetings meaningful.

Be observant.

Be a reader of the room.

PD for School Leaders

Presentations and audience engagement are only one aspect of what school administrators are responsible for every day. To help you navigate the myriad demands and expectations of the job, Advancement Courses offers PD courses that will help you become a more impactful leader:

  • A Year in the Life of a School Leader: A Road Map to Success: Create a plan for a stress-free school year, including how to establish a vision and expectations at the beginning of the year, help teachers stay motivated around the holidays and state testing time, and create data-driven improvement plans over the summer.
  • The Seven Domains of Teacher Leadership: Becoming a teacher leader is about much more than taking on a new title. Learn how to make a meaningful impact on your school’s improvement efforts and create a more equitable learning environment for your students.
  • Using Data to Understand Inequities in Schools: Inequities in education are sometimes easy to spot, but more often, inequality is not so apparent. Looking closely at student data points such as demographics, enrollment, attendance, and discipline can often tell a deeper story about inequities that may exist in your school.
  • The Art of Delegation: A School Leader’s Guide: Become a healthier, more successful leader through the power of delegation. Learn when to delegate, what kinds of tasks to delegate, and how to choose and coach the right people to help you lead your school to success.
  • Networking to Strengthen School Leaders: School leadership can be a lonely job. Learn how to surround yourself with mentors and collaborators who will challenge, encourage, and inspire you to build a stronger school and a healthier, more passion-fueled career.

In addition to these, Advancement Courses offers more than 280 online, self-paced PD courses covering both foundational topics and emerging trends in K–12 education. Courses are available for both graduate and continuing education credit for your salary advancement or recertification needs.

Lisa Sheehan

Lisa Sheehan has an undergraduate degree from Bellarmine University in art education and graduate degrees from the University of Louisville – Master of Education and Specialist in Education. Lisa taught art and in the regular classroom before moving into administration for 17 years. During her time as an administrator, Lisa was an instructional coordinator, gifted and talented coordinator, assistant principal, and building principal at Buckner Elementary School, in Oldham County, Kentucky. Lisa has been an adjunct professor for graduate classes at Bellarmine, undergraduate courses at University of Louisville, and served as a KTIP university resource teacher.

This article first appeared on Advancement Courses.