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.

1. Do Nothing

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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