The art of reading people: What every entrepreneur needs to know


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You know how these articles go – a million different bits of body language that you’re expected to memorise when you’re suddenly in front of a VC and about to pitch your startup idea.

But understanding non-verbal communication can pay huge dividends for you as an entrepreneur. Whether you’re meeting with investors, potential partners, or employees, having a solid knowledge of how to read people will increase your performance as a leader and help you to get better results.

So let’s keep it simple and cover just a few key areas around how people view you (and how you can influence it), as well as how you can read them.

Let’s jump in.

1. Rehearse your body language

Okay, you walk into a room and you know there are people here who could fund your startup, or who might want to partner with you, or incredible talent you might want to employ before your competitors snatch them up. There’s a lot at stake.

You spent all of last night going through your business plan, memorising the key points, ensuring you’re a walking-talking business case. There’s no question you can’t answer.

But here are some facts that might make you re-think all that preparation: 55% of communication is body language, 38% is tone of voice, 7% is what we actually say.

Does that mean you should throw out all that preparation and just focus on your body language and tone of voice? Well the answer to that is no. No amount of proficiency in these areas is going to make up for a startup idea that has holes in it.

But it does mean that when you are practising your pitch, you should ensure the friends or colleagues you try it out on are looking at your body language and tone of voice and giving you feedback on that – as well as the actual content of what you’re saying.

And this goes for other kinds of high-pressure meetings you might encounter as an entrepreneur – including difficult employee interactions or discussions with vendors.

2. Can you control how they view you?

You can actually control a great deal. Want some practice? Watch some contentious interviews on YouTube (Russell Brand is always a good one) where the interviewer is trying to attack or belittle the interviewee, or assert power over them, or simply not let them speak. This has happened to all of us at some point, where we have walked out of a business meeting thinking ‘What just happened in there?’ It’s only over time that we unpack it and realise what was going on.

Well, how do you deal with this situation in the moment?

There are a number of tricks you can employ to ensure that in those difficult business meetings, when you feel under threat, you still remain in control of how you’re being perceived. And all of it comes under the heading of detaching your ego from personal attacks.

If you remember nothing else, remember this: keep a neutral expression, normal eye contact and don’t be afraid of prolonged silence. In fact, silence is your friend.

Keeping steady eye contact is particularly important when you don’t like the direction the conversation is going. We’re not talking about staring, or glaring, just an utterly neutral look. Let the words wash over you while you prepare your response – it will throw the person who is launching these attacks as they will appear to be missing the mark.

If you feel you’re being talked over, just continue talking. Keep your momentum going. And if all else fails, you will need to change the direction of the conversation. This is often used if someone doesn’t like the sound of a question that’s being directed at them. The key here is a hard interruption, where you mention something completely off-topic, often related to the space or room everyone is in. It breaks the flow, and often when the person then revs up for their question once again, it’s now watered down.

Finally, treat each member of a group as an individual, using their names if possible. If one member is hostile, you may find allies among the others.

3. How can you read them?

The key here is to be very careful of mis-reading. There are some common mistakes: we’re often told that if someone has their arms crossed (curiously we tend only to do this in public, rarely in private) it means they’re closed off or defensive.

It’s not that simple. You’ll find a person having their arms crossed may be a sign of self-soothing, and can even be friendly. As for touching their nose or mouth – often seen as a sign of deceit – this can also be pacifying behaviour and should not be read as an automatic alarm bell.

You may notice someone’s eyes dart to one side. This is often seen as suspicious, that kind of sideways glance, but it’s actually quite common for people to do that when we’re considering something – this is especially relevant if you have just off-loaded a lot of information on them.

And finally, you know things are going well if they are mimicking your body language or even your words – do you feel they are mirroring you? If so, things are looking positive.

Your next meeting

So there you go – a few simple points to keep in mind as you work your way up the business ladder as an entrepreneur. When in doubt, a confident silence can work wonders, keeping that neutral eye contact, and showing that you’re not phased – while giving you time to figure out your response.

In the end, it’s only through real-life practise that you get better at this stuff. But in time you’ll notice that you’re reading a room more effectively, and able to ensure that they are perceiving you as you wish.