Managing A Distracted Audience: The Multitasking Myth

I occasionally write in the evenings at my family’s kitchen table. Sometimes, my wife pops in the room and asks me a question. I stop typing, look up, and say, “Sorry, what was that?”

That scene probably plays out in millions of homes all over the world each night. As one partner reads a book, performs a household repair, or prepares the children for bed, the other partner asks a question that barely gets heard.

The truth is we’re terrible multitaskers. You may have deceived yourself into believing that you’re somehow different—that you can easily focus on numerous tasks, giving each equal energy, simultaneously. But the brain science is rather unambiguous on this point: you can’t.

That has consequences for you each time you speak to an audience. That man who is checking his smartphone for incoming emails can’t also be giving you his full attention. That woman live-tweeting the event can’t also be giving you her full attention. So what’s a speaker to do in such a distracted age?

First, the science. Dr. John Medina, the director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University and the author of Brain Rules, writes:

“The brain cannot multitask. Multitasking, when it comes to paying attention, is a myth. The brain naturally focuses on concepts sequentially, one at a time…To put it bluntly, research shows that we can’t multitask. We are biologically incapable of processing information-rich inputs simultaneously…Studies show that a person who is interrupted takes 50 percent longer to accomplish a task. Not only that, he or she makes up to 50 percent more errors.”

Susan Weinschenk, a psychologist and author of 100 Things Every Presenter Needs To Know About People, agrees:

“The term multitasking is a misnomer. People can’t actually do more than one task at a time. Instead, we switch tasks…You make more errors when you switch than when you do one task at a time. If the tasks are complex, then those time and error penalties increase.”

As a presenter, what can you do to prevent your audience from multitasking by sneaking regular peeks at their cell phones and emails?
First, take a look at an earlier post I wrote on this topic, called “Five Ways To Handle Smartphone Distractions During a Speech.”

But I want to go beyond the advice I’ve offered in the past by suggesting that you consider introducing a “cell phone-free zone” or “wireless-free zone” for your next talk.

Now, I already hear many of you objecting to that idea, and you’re right that doing so isn’t permissible in many public speaking settings (if you’re pitching a product to a potential client, insisting they power down won’t win you many friends).

But think of these settings: a work meeting; an educational lecture; a hospital tour; an orientation course; a sensitivity training workshop. Those are just a few examples, but it gives you an idea of the times when you might be able to introduce a cell phone-free zone.

Since people sometimes freak out (internally, if not externally) when you take away their ability to check their phones, offer them a safety valve. Tell them you’ll have bathroom/cell phone breaks once every 60-90 minutes. And do explain why you’re requesting their compliance—not out of being power hungry, but out of a desire to have their full focus on the critical content they’re about to learn. You might even share some of the brain science about multitasking with them.

Finally, in settings in which people may be using their laptops or electronic devices to take notes, ask them to turn their wireless off. As the science shows, every “ping” from a new email serves as a distraction, no matter how momentary.

What do you think? Would you consider requesting a cell-free zone for your presentations? How would you react to a speaker who requested one from you? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section.