I do a lot of public speaking, and am fortunate that people rarely text or stare at their smartphones during my talks. But I do occasionally encounter members of the audience who stare at their smartphones throughout my speech—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.
It can also be a sign that they are
interested in your speech—for all you know, they’re taking notes or “live tweeting” your talk.
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. Or that she’s using her device to take notes or “live tweet” your talk. If only one person is distracted by a smartphone—or if you suspect people are using them to take notes or tweet about your talk—let it go. If 10
people are using one and look totally uninterested, you should probably change tactics. The context will tell you a lot; expect a great deal of smartphone use at a social media conference and less at an employee retreat.
2. Move Closer.
One of my techniques is to continue speaking while slowly
walking in the direction of the person on their smartphone. I don’t make eye contact with that person 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 in 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 training 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 10 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 his or her smartphones away.
Brad Phillips is the president of Phillips Media Relations, which specializes in media and presentation training. He blogs at Mr. Media Training.