Tips on dealing with a distracted audience

Tips on dealing with a distracted audience

Picture the situation. You are driving along in your car telling your travelling companion about something exciting in your life, when you look over and realize that they haven’t heard a word you said. Something in their phone is more interesting than you!

Admittedly it is hard to compete with a device that is literally a gateway to almost all knowledge and entertainment ever created by the human species. Unfortunately, when you scale up from an audience of one to an audience of hundreds, this will still happen, only more so. It can create a number of problems for you as the speaker:

  1. Your message is lost on the distracted audience members.
  2. The distracted audience members can distract you and dent your confidence.
  3. The distracted audience members can create an atmosphere where it is ok to not pay attention.

Here are a number of tips for keeping the audience’s attention and getting it back when you lose it.

1. Start strong

The best time to grab the audience’s attention is at the beginning. When you begin speaking, most audience members will sit up and pay attention for the first 20-30 seconds while they decide if your talk is going to be interesting. You should plan to

  • hook their attention at this crucial moment, and
  • then give them a reason to pay attention for the rest of the talk.

There are numerous ways to do it. I will sometimes start with a question, or some shocking statement that will grab their attention. Then as I get into my introduction and tell them what the talk will be about, I often build in a witty comment to make them laugh. My intention in starting that way is to have them say to themselves “Hmmm – that’s an interesting thing to say. Oh, he is a funny one!”. If I can’t think of a something funny, I might instead go for: “Hmmm – that’s an interesting way to look at things. Oh, he is an insightful one!”

2. Tell a story

One thing you can do when you feel your audience’s attention is starting to slip away from you, is to tell a story. Stories have been the way that humans communicated complex ideas to each other since the dawn of time, and they are able to maintain our attention better than any facts and figures.

3. Move around the stage

Sometimes, if you start losing your audience, you can surprise them by moving out from behind the podium (if you are using one) or just changing position. You will need to use your judgement for this one: it might not always be practical or appropriate, although I can guarantee that if you are the Father of the Bride and you jump up on the table, you will certainly grab the audience’s attention!

4. Plan an attention break

Humans are not good at maintaining their attention on anything for very long. Sometimes, it is necessary to give long talks, for example if you are a lecturer at a university. Some lecturers make it a habit to give the audience a two minute talk break about half-ways through the lecture, to allow them to recharge their attention batteries.

5. Increase your vocal variety

When you were young, if you were lucky, you may have been regaled by ghost stories as you sat around a campfire in the woods. You will remember how at a crucial part in the story, the best storytellers would begin to speak quietly and lean in and then BOOM, they would startle their young audience with some imagined malevolence. You can do a slightly less dramatic version of this trick to keep your audience engaged. Audiences will certainly be more attentive.

6. Change your pace

Imagine listening to a full speech spoken in the manner of those speed readers who read the terms and conditions at the end of adverts. It would be very hard to sustain your concentration. On the opposite end of the scale, if you try listening to a full speech spoken at a very slow pace, the gaps between words will allow too many unwanted thoughts to creep in and your mind will wander. When you are on stage it can be hard to judge if you might be speaking too slow or too fast, but if you notice the audience’s concentration wandering off, it is a good idea to change your pace. Slow down or speed up – just change. And keep changing. Think of how songs like Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and in fact the whole genre of “Prog Rock” have constant changes in tempo. It keeps the experience interesting.

7. Ask a question

Another useful technique is to ask the audience a question. Something like “Has any of you experienced this?” in relation to the subject you just spoke about. This will help reconnect you with the audience and reengage them.

8. Redirect their distraction

Sometimes your best strategy might be to embrace the fact that some audience members are distracted and try to turn it to your advantage. Why not joke that if any of the audience are on your phones or laptops, you are quite happy about it because it means they are tweeting your wise words and including the hashtag that can be seen on the bottom left corner of the slides (or whatever).

9. Relax

Just accept that some audience members will be distracted, or will seem to be distracted. There are a number of reasons why you shouldn’t let it get to you.

  • Firstly understand that they may actually be listening intently. Many of us have gotten into the habit of building our excel formulas or formatting documents while actively listening to podcasts. This is no different. People multi-task.
  • Understand also that some audience members are just not interested in the topic. It is not you. Maybe they are software vendors who have come to the medical conference you are a speaking at, and they are there to meet people, not to learn about your topic. You can’t expect these people to be enraptured by your presentation, no matter how interesting.
  • Worrying about it will not help your performance. So relax.

You must accept that it is impossible to engage with all of the audience members all of the time. All you can do is your best at the appointed time.

Fortunately, the one-on-one situation in the car is easier to deal with. You can simply pick your timing, and initiate the conversation when the person isn’t distracted!

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