How Speakers Can Deal With An Audience That Is Distracted

Speakers need to be able to deal with audiences who are texting or tweeting
Speakers need to be able to deal with audiences who are texting or tweeting
Image Credit: gato-gato-gato

Let’s all agree on one thing: you’ve worked hard to prepare for the next speech that you will be giving. When you take the stage, you are assuming that your audience will be interested in what you have to say and they will pay attention to you while you are speaking. However, in this day and age, there is a very good chance that some of the members of your audience may not be giving you all of their attention. Instead they may be using their mobile phones to text or tweet while you speak. What’s a speaker to do?

The Problem With Distractions

As a speaker, none of us like to speak to an audience of people who appear to be distracted by their cell phones, or are clattering away on their laptops or burying their heads in their iPads. Unfortunately, I believe that in the past we have all been to conferences where people seemed to pay more attention to their electronic devices than to the live person on the podium. As smartphones connect people to their busy lives, this phenomenon will only become more common in the future. It is tempting to address this issue as speakers by trying to ban cell phones at the start of presentations because of the importance of public speaking. But this rarely works. We need to realize that it has always been very hard to keep the attention of any group of people — at any age, at any time. The distraction epidemic that we are now experiencing calls for a different type of approach – one that can engage people, not just force them to stare silently. Here is what you can do to capture the attention of your next distracted audience.

Go Ahead And Let Your Guard Down

When you attend a speech these days, what is the first thing that you normally hear the speaker say? It’s “Please turn off all cell phones.” Since you know that you’ll never be able to get everyone to do this, perhaps you should take a different approach. How about if you said “Go ahead and turn on your cell phones. Send tweets. Post to Facebook. Do what you have to do.” If you do this, then you can accomplish two things. First, it establishes a rapport between you and the audience by creating an informal, friendly setting. Given the choice, most of the members of your audience would rather chat informally with a friend than be required to sit at attention during your speech. Understand that people tend to remember interactions with friends, so you need to turn your speech into something that resembles that situation.

Although we generally don’t like it when people are communicating with the outside world during our speech, we need to understand what they are really doing. Your audience is creating another potentially vast audience. By encouraging people to tweet and post on Facebook, you are expanding your reach far beyond the room that you are speaking in. Additionally, audience members who participate this way during your presentations become more engaged and attentive; they focus on conveying your main points for the digital sound bites they post for social media users. Another benefit: by reading these posts later, you can get instant feedback and you can see what was most memorable to the audience or what may have fallen flat. Some people learn best by doing something else while listening, whether it’s doodling or using a phone.

Encourage Participation By Your Audience

As speakers, we need to understand that when audiences are involved, they are more engaged. You want your audience members to become companions with you as you lead them to the final destination or purpose of your speech.

You Are The Guide

What is your role as you give a speech? Are you there to be the wise person who is sharing information with your audience or are you trying to be a guide who helps them to reach the conclusions that you are trying to communicate to them? A relaxed speaking environment is more productive and enjoyable for your audience. It may be hard to do, but what we need to learn is how to relax and not judge the appearance of an audience – or more precisely, the appearance of electronic devices in an audience. When you speak to a group of people, it is about trying to make a connection and giving your audience something tangible to take away. The good news for all of us is that we can find a connection, even amid the clattering of laptops and flashes of iPhone screens.

What All Of This Means For You

When we give a speech, we believe that the benefits of public speaking we have to share with our audience is important stuff. Because of that, we believe that they need to stop whatever they have been doing and pay attention to us. This is why it can be so disheartening to see an audience where half of the people appear to be playing with their phones while we are talking. What’s a speaker to do when we are facing a distracted audience?

Speakers really don’t like it when they sense that their audience may not be paying attention to what they are saying. At the start of our speech we may be tempted to tell our audience to put away their phones and pay attention to us. However, that never works. A different way of dealing with this is to tell your audience to keep their phones out and to use them during your speech. This will endear you to your audience and they may pay closer attention to what you have to say. Encourage your audience to participate in your speech. Create a relaxed speaking environment and find ways to engage your audience.

I’m pretty sure that we’ve all heard the phrase “pick your battles”. Trying to get everyone in an audience to put away their phones and pay attention to us is probably not possible. Instead, we need to go with the flow and realize that our audience will have phones and laptops open and being used during our speech. We need to encourage our audiences to share what they are hearing and by doing so we can get our message out to a larger crowd than is sitting before us. If we can get over being upset about talking to a distracted audience, then perhaps we can see the opportunity that is before us.

– Dr. Jim Anderson Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Public Speaking Skills™

Question For You: Even if your audience is distracted, what can you do to get them to pay attention to you?

Click here to get automatic updates when The Accidental Communicator Blog is updated.
P.S.: Free subscriptions to The Accidental Communicator Newsletter are now available. Subscribe now: Click Here!
Note: What we talked about are advanced speaking skills. If you are just starting out I highly recommend joining Toastmasters in order to get the benefits of public speaking. Look for a Toastmasters club to join in your home town by visiting the web site Toastmasters is dedicated to helping their members to understand the importance of public speaking by developing listening skills and getting presentation tips. Toastmasters is how I got started speaking and it can help you also!

What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

If you are like most speakers, the next time that you give a speech you are going to be hoping that your audience understand the importance of public speaking and puts their phones down while you speak. I mean really, you’ve spent time creating and rehearsing this speech, the least that they can do is to give you their undivided attention. Unfortunately, I think that we all know that this probably is not going to happen. Perhaps a different approach is called for. Maybe you should be telling your audience to take their phones out. Maybe that Twitter app just might be your new best friend.