5 Ways To Handle Smartphone Distractions During a Speech
I do a lot of public speaking. Although I’m fortunate that people usually don’t stare at their smartphones during my talks, I do occasionally encounter someone who does — and many of my presentation training clients often face the same challenge.
Watching an audience member (or, heavens forbid, many audience members) glued to his or her mini-screen throughout your talk can be distracting, discouraging, and even infuriating. On the other hand, it may also be a valuable sign to you as a speaker that you’re boring the audience, necessitating a change in technique.
Here are five things you can do the next time you catch someone using their smartphone throughout your talk.
The audience’s use of smartphones may have nothing to do with the quality of your talk. It’s entirely plausible that the audience member is emailing to find out how her father is doing post-surgery. It’s also possible that she’s using her device to take notes. If only one person is distracted by a smartphone, let it go. If ten people are using one, you should probably change tactics.
2. Move Closer
One of my tricks is to continue speaking while slowly walking in the direction of the person on their smartphone. I don’t make eye contact with them and go out of my way to look at someone else nearby. Guess what? When everyone in the room turns to look at me (and the direction of the smartphone user), the person stops using the phone and pays attention to me again.
3. Change Your Approach
If you’ve lost the attention of several people, you should probably change your approach. You might pause for several seconds (silence often snaps people back to attention). Or you can ask a question and ask for a show of hands. Or ask a question of the group and await a response. Or do an exercise. Only one thing’s for certain: if you keep doing the same thing, you’re going to lose even more people.
4. Call A Break
I once conducted a session with six people. At one point, three of them were on their smartphones at the same time (that’s pretty unusual, but this group dealt with “breaking” news issues). Instead of proceeding to talk to the top of people’s heads, I said, “It looks to me that a few of you have some pressing issues to deal with. Let’s take a ten minute break so you can deal with them, and we’ll get going again when you’re ready.”
5. Deal With It More Aggressively
This next strategy isn’t appropriate for all venues, so you’ll want to pick your moments carefully. Here are two examples of how to respond more aggressively.
For one talk to college-aged students, I noticed one person on his cell phone throughout the talk. Perhaps I was in a mood that day, but I wanted to address it. So I asked a question to the audience and said, “Guy on cell phone – what do you think?” Everyone in the room laughed, and he stammered a bit. But no one dared used a smart phone for the rest of the session. I’m usually reluctant to embarrass someone, but I knew I could get away with it for that group.
Another example comes from political consultant Frank Luntz. During one speech, an older woman’s cell phone ring interrupted his talk. He darted into the audience, grabbed her phone, and said to the audience, “If anyone knows how to change her ringtone to ‘Play That Funky Music,’ I’ll give you $20.” It was funny, original, and unexpected. And everyone quietly put their smartphones away.
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Great tips, Brad. I’ve used the “walk towards the person” one before. You also have to consider the audience and subject. I frequently present on social media topics and point out topical hashtags, blogs and social media folks. Because I’m expecting my audiences to be looking up these things, livetweeting and participating on social media, I tend to give a bit more leeway.
Timely post! I
have noticed now at some concerts there are kids that pull out their computers (not even phones!) I thought they were doing other work, only to find they are videotaping. But it is still disconcerting to look to the audience and see screens.
I like the “walkover” approach mentioned. There is also the “it you can’t beat them, join them, strategy”. Theaters that are putting in “tweet seats” for those that will be tweeting during the show (hopefully about the show!).
In the age of Twitter, I’ve heard more than one speaker say they’re insulted if no one is using a smart phone during their presentation. It means nothing they’re saying is worth tweeting out.
It depends on the venue. Sometimes smartphone use means you’re being really interesting.
That’s a terrific point, and a few people on Twitter said something similar. You’re exactly right that context matters.
When I wrote this article, I was thinking more of business presentations and speeches, not keynote speeches and conference breakout sessions. If I’m doing a training session, for example, I hope not to have eyes on a screen. If I’m presenting at a social media conference, I rather expect it.
That said, I disagree with the speakers who say they’re insulted if no one is using a smartphone. Social science is rather clear that people can either be paying full attention to a speech or to Twitter, but not to both. That’s not to say they can’t be tweeting and listening – they can. But I think of the analogy to distracted driving. Can someone tweet and drive? Statistically speaking, most people who tweet and drive get away with it without crashing. But when they tweet and drive, they’re paying less attention to the road. Same goes for a speech.
Thanks again for your great comment!
This is one of the best, most useful tip sheets I’ve seen in ages. I really like the idea of walking TOWARDS someone using a smart phone. Will try that next time I’m speaking!
Thank you for such high praise! I’m so glad you enjoyed the article.
I read that tip about walking toward somebody years ago (unfortunately, I can’t remember where I read it); I’ve subsequently used it dozens of times. It works like a charm.
Thanks again, and please let me know how it goes when you try it.
Very helpful tips – but I would recommend some caution before acting too quickly – I have noticed more and more that the person on the phone or tablet is not tweeting, texting or checking/answering email but instead actually taking notes.
Absolutely right. That’s why I wanted to make sure that the first bullet said “do nothing” — as you suggested, it’s quite possible that the attendee is completely engaged with the presentation.
Thanks for commenting!
Tally my vote with everybody who suggested those of us looking at smartphones may be tweeting, posting your picture to Facebook or taking notes. Plenty of studies show that doodling while listening improves comprehension. Consider it electronic doodling.
Thank you for your comment!
I’d argue that “doodling” is different than using a smartphone to upload photographs or tweeting. One is an almost thoughtless activity, while the other requires self-editing and other skills requiring some thought. The social science is rather clear that you can give your full focus to one thing at time. Just ask people who tweet and drive.
Thanks for stopping by,
Brad, this is great!
I admit that I have a distinct advantage, since what I speak about most is mindfulness — being present in the moment. My talks are often about breaking free of a life on autopilot, or the perpetually sub-par level of brain function known as multitasking. It’s pretty rare that anyone’s staring at their smartphone for long! 🙂
Thanks again for your great tips.
That’s great, and it sounds like you do indeed have an advantage. I wonder if, in your case, people might ever be “staring” at their phones simply to take notes, and whether that by itself could create a distraction? After all, when someone takes notes on paper, there’s no way they’re going to see the phone call they just missed, the text they just received, and the 24 emails awaiting their reply.
Thanks for commenting and for your nice words,
Excellent question, Brad! All of this is offered with the awareness that it may be useless to other types of presenters — or maybe a radical shift!
My strategy is to make my talks as much an experience of being aware of what you’re brain is up to, as a content download about mindfulness.
* To keep the need for note-taking to a minimum, I typically have downloadable handouts — not printed — and let participants know about them before and during the talk. They don’t seem to feel as compelled to take notes that way. (I know there’re different takes on that practice.)
* I’m brash enough to ask the audience to actually notice what it’s like for them to be out of their habit of note-taking, e-mail-checking, Twitter-sending, etc. — it can be breathtaking to realize how much we’re always jonesing to get that dopamine and/or adrenaline squirt from a bunch of new emails, or soothing our anxiety about forgetting something by writing a note to ourselves…
* I also (gasp) don’t use PowerPoint, etc., since my whole point is how interpersonal connection is hugely important to our well-being. If we’re all staring at a screen… yeah, not so good for connection. I’m less attuned to my audience, and they’re “gone.”
* I also engage the audience in brief mindfulness practices throughout the talk — with more active ones after lunch, to avoid post-prandial napping.
* Last but not least, since my audience is often a self-selected group — people who realize they’re not thriving because of how they’re always distracted — there’s sort of an instant “be present” culture in the audience. (Kind of like how symphony audiences quickly “teach” newcomers not to clap between movements.)
* I call attention to all of these points as part of my talks, and explain how knowing what your brain is up to when it comes to attention/multitasking/zoning out helps you use those three pounds of neurons between your ears more effectively.
When I get farther along and I’m addressing massive throngs, I will absolutely be re-reading your post here, and no doubt calling you for advice!
Very humbly submitted,
What a terrific comment! I admire your approach to public speaking – you’re clearly deeply thoughtful about the way you deliver information to an audience. Please let me know if you ever give a public talk in the NYC area, as I’d love to see you in action!
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