5 ways speakers can win back a distracted audience

You might not grab celebrity-level adulation every time you ascend the podium and dive into your presentation, but you can thwart common attention thieves by using these techniques.

How to win back a distracted audience

Just about all public speakers, before they take the stage, feel fear and trepidation.

Most have questions like, “What if I forget what I was saying?” or “What if I run into tech issues?” Generally, with enough preparation, those problems can be avoided.

What a speaker can’t plan for is distractions. You never know when those are going to pop up. Maybe there was a loud noise in the corridor, or a bird flew through the window. Maybe someone in the audience has bolted out of the room. No one can plan for such occurrences.

Some distractions aren’t so odd or unusual; people will probably tap on their smartphones or tablets. Maybe they’re tweeting out your latest nugget of brilliance, but some might have checked out in favor of Candy Crush.

If you don’t get their attention back, you could lose them for good, and your entire presentation will have been a loss.

Here are five tactics to hold your audience’s attention:

1. Embrace cellphone use.

Do not ban mobile devices. Asking for such obedience up front signals a lack of control, and you come across like a teacher scolding the students.

Instead, encourage cellphone use. Invite people to send out tweets or post information about your presentation on Facebook. You’ll inspire them to market your message on social media, thereby expanding your reach, and you’ll win brownie points—enhancing their attention.

2. Stay flexible.

Don’t be afraid to change your plans on the spot. If your audience has become distracted, engage them. Ask questions, call on different audience members, ask for a show of hands. Through their participation, audience members will feel they are co-creators of your presentation, instead of passive spectators who must sit quietly and listen.

3. Acknowledge the distraction.

If something out of the ordinary happens, acknowledge it. I once watched a presenter try to ignore a small child who had wandered in front of the stage and started dancing. The audience couldn’t keep their eyes off him; he was adorable (and not a bad dancer).

The presenter was rigid and unprepared for anything odd, so he just rambled on, trying to ignore the spectacle. Eventually the child’s mother grabbed the boy, and they left.

The speaker never once acknowledged the incident. He could have made a funny comment like, “Hey, I should get that kid to open for me from now on,” or, “That kid should go on ‘So You Think You Can Dance,’” but no. Pretending the distraction had never happened just made him look out of touch—and out of control.

Should something extraordinary happen, acknowledge it, use humor, and move on—recapping a bit to ensure that you and the audience are back on the same page.

4. Have an “in case of emergency” story ready.

When preparing your presentation, build in a few stories—but keep one in your back pocket that you can tap “in case of emergency.” Make it a good one; you’ll need something special when minds start wandering.

5. Break for a Q&A.

Sure, the Q&A usually comes at the end, but there are no hard and fast rules about it—and you can have more than one.

If you feel the audience’s attention slipping, stop for an impromptu exchange. This will activate your audience members and get them participating.

 Ashish Arora is a co-founder of SketchBubble.com. You can find him on Twitter or LinkedIn.


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