How to ‘Read the Room’ in Any Video Meeting or Job Interview

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(U.S. Air Force/Joseph Coslett)

You may have heard -- or even been taught -- that it’s important to read the room to assess who’s there, what they need and how to communicate to your advantage.

An actor taking the stage, for example, quickly assesses audience members and gets a sense of their mood, what they care about, need and want to experience. Then, the actor delivers a performance to meet those needs, hopefully receiving rave reviews and applause as validation.

When someone is said to be unable to read the room, it’s meant that their jokes fall flat, their comments are inappropriate or misdirected, and they make themselves unpopular in their communication.

As a job seeker, you’ll need to read the room when doing in-person interviews, particularly group or panel interviews to ensure your interview responses meet the needs of the target employer. But now that most screenings, interviews and inquiries are happening on Zoom (or via video), sizing up your audience is harder than ever for job seekers. To learn how to size up the interviewers and deliver powerful communication, consider these tips:

Watch the Interviewers

Communication/Choice of Words

While you might be receiving less information than an in-person meeting on a video call, you still can pay attention to someone’s choice of words and language. Are they speaking about the future and your participation in meeting company goals, or are they painting a grimmer picture?

Often, people reveal their intentions and feelings in their choice of words and communication.

Vocal Tone

In addition to the words with which someone chooses to communicate, their tone can reveal their intentions. For example, someone who ends every sentence up (called “upspeak”) may signal uncertainty or a lack of conviction in their words. Similarly, if the interviewer uses a curt and firm tone in their communication, that might indicate they are being decisive or even upset.

Body Language

In the absence of in-person cues, body language can reveal a lot on a video call. Watch facial expressions for indications of pleasure and confirmation as you answer interview questions.

For example, if one of your responses elicits eyebrow raises and smiling from the interviewer, that’s a good sign! Similarly, if your interview response causes the interviewer to frown or look to the side suddenly, this could mean they are not happy with your response. Also, watch for affirming gestures, such as head nodding, clapping and even a “thumbs up” motion. Those are good signs that the interviewer likes what they’re hearing.

Observe the Background

Environment

Look at the interviewer’s surroundings but be cautious drawing too many conclusions. With more people working remotely, your interviewer may be using a makeshift home office, and it may not clearly represent the environment you work in if hired.

If they have items in clear view, you could choose to comment on them (“I see you have travel posters on your wall. Do you often travel to the company’s remote offices?”) but avoid mentioning items of a too-personal nature (such as family photos or personal items in view on the video call).

Distractions

It’s difficult not to feel thrown when the interviewer receives interruptions such as email notifications popping up, cell phones ringing or even children or pets entering the video view. But these are realities of the remote environment everyone has had to become tolerant of.

As best you can, avoid jumping to the conclusion that the interview isn’t important to them and instead show empathy for their embarrassment or irritation at the interruption.

Virtual interviews and meetings are fraught with many challenges, from technical snafus to distractions and assumptions. While you’ll want to scan and assess the environment to “read the room,” avoid drawing limiting conclusions that could hinder your opportunities and instead focus on positives. See what’s possible in growing your communication skills, even virtually!

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