Speaking on stage is not easy. And it’s even harder when you have to deliver a talk while dealing with distractions. The bad news is, distractions during a talk or presentation will occur.
It’s almost inevitable. Someone’s cell phone will ring, or someone might leave the room to use the restroom, or people might engage in cross-talk. But how do you deal with them?
Distractions can vary from something that is minor (someone’s cell phone ringing) to something that prevents you from speaking further (LOUD construction noise). Here are some common distractions that can occur while you are speaking:
Type of distractions
- People entering/leaving the venue
- Outside sounds such as environmental sounds, construction, traffic etc.
- Cross-talks among the audience
- Phones ringing
- People texting/browsing during the talk
Many of these factors are not in your control. Some may argue that if a speech is engaging enough, it won’t invite any distractions. While that is true to some extent, there are other factors that are just not in the speaker’s control.
Noises occurring from a construction site nearby cannot be prevented even if a speaker is engaging.
So how do you deal with such distractions while you are on stage delivering a talk?
This is my preferred option in most cases. When I’m on stage delivering a talk and someone’s phone goes off or people are whispering to each other, I just go on.
I’ve sometimes been advised to acknowledge the distraction by either waiting for the phone ringing to stop or requesting the people who are whispering to stop doing so, but I rather continue to deliver my talk than to break the flow of my speech.
Instead of addressing the distraction, I focus on the people who are paying attention. This helps me not get distracted and continue to deliver my talk in an uninterrupted flow. So unless the distraction is too loud that I cannot be heard, I just continue speaking.
You till likely be able to ignore the distraction when you are completely focused on your speech. Here’s how you can do that:
How to focus while talking?
Arrive early: Arrive a little early to the venue where you will be speaking at. Move around and get a feel of the stage. It will help you be more comfortable when you get up there to deliver your talk.
Pre-empt distractions: Understand that not everyone is likely to be completely immersed in what you have to say. People will get distracted. It’s best to be mentally prepared for these so you can deal with them better if and when they actually do occur.
Go slow: When you slow down your pace, you will automatically be able to concentrate better. When you feel yourself rushing, just breathe and consciously work on reducing the pace of your speech.
Practice: This is a give. The more you practice and are prepared for your speech, the less likely you are to be distracted by external factors. So ensure you know your material. This way, even if a distraction does occur, you will be prepared enough to tackle it wisely.
People in the audience will whisper to each other from time to time. And that’s fine. It shouldn’t break the flow of your talk. But there are some people who just keep on talking with each other. It becomes very distracting after a point of time.
When this happens to me, I simply walk towards the part of the audience where the “whisperers” are sitting and try and increase my volume.
I don’t necessarily look directly at them, but the act of me coming close to them makes them more alert of my presence and gets them to stop whispering (in most cases at least!).
Contradictory to the previous point, if you’re in a big audience, moving away from the “whisperers” and delivering your talk on the other side of the stage until you hear the cross-talking fade away can also be a good tactic to prevent you from getting distracted.
If you hear some non-stop cross-talking from one side of the audience, just move away and address the other side. Shift your focus on the people who are listening to you without interruptions.
Incorporate it Into Your Talk
This is a tricky one. What many experienced speakers do (and they do so amazingly well) is that they incorporate a distraction into their talk as if it were part of the speech all along.
It adds humour to the speech as well prevents the audience from losing their attention from you.
For example, I remember this one speaker who was giving a beautiful talk on parenting the new generation – when someone’s cell phone went off. Instead of flagging it off, he commented, “Is that call for me?” The audience roared with laughter and it added more credibility to the speaker!
Another example is this one time when I was watching a comedy event. The host was speaking on stage when two ladies walked in almost 30 minutes after the show had started.
The host stopped what he was saying, looked at the two ladies who were walking towards their seats, made a sarcastic sad expression and said, “Welcome to our show! We’re so sorry we started on time.” Everyone laughed and shifted their attention back to the speaker.
Incorporating a distraction into your talk can be tricky but when done correctly, it can act as a real boon to your speech.
Break the Pattern
If one or two people are scrolling through their cell phones during your talk, it’s easy to wave it off. But when 10 people are not paying attention to you, you probably need to change things up!
Breaking the pattern can fit in well here. This usually happens when a speaker is talking in a predictable, monotone voice.
Changing your approach to the speech, going louder/softer, pausing for a few seconds or changing the energy of the room can work to break the pattern of your speech and snap the audience’s attention back to you.
Related article: 5 Ways to Grab Your Audience’s Attention When You’re Losing it!
Sometimes, there are a few distractions that are not yours or any one’s fault. For example, if an important news event or sports match is taking place at the same time when you are delivering your talk, people are probably going to keep checking in on the event.
When this happens, take a moment and acknowledge the event. Show the audience that you know something important is going on but you would really appreciate it if they could not get distracted by it. You can also announce that the people who are really interested in the event can exit the room so as to not distract the people who are interested in the talk.
Take a Break
Sometimes, all the audience needs is a little break. Speakers who go on for hours at a stretch will start to notice a slouching audience, and this is not the audience’s fault.
When you see the audience getting restless, tired, irritated etc. call for a short break. Allow them to use the washroom, drink water and freshen up. When they return, they’ll be in a better state to listen to what you’re saying.
While distractions are, in most cases, inevitable, one of the best things to do is to pre-empt these distractions and come up with possible solutions to avoid them in the first place. Here are a few things you can do before your speech to reduce the possibility of distractions:
- Request the audience to put their phones on airplane mode so there are fewer chances of phones ringing or of people browsing through their smartphones while you’re talking
- Request people to use the washroom before the speech so they don’t leave the venue while you are delivering your speech
- Announce at the beginning of your speech that audience members are requested not to engage in cross-talk as it distracts the speaker and those who are genuinely wanting to listen to the talk. If you can have someone else announce this for you, it would be much better than you, the speaker, having to announce it yourself
- Try and visit the venue a day or a few hours in advance and check for any possible distractions or nearby sounds. You can even request the organizers of the place you are speaking at to check for the same so measures to prevent the distractions can be taken accordingly
Always Be Smiling
No matter how many distractions occur, just remember to keep a smile while you address these distractions. If you incorporate the distraction into your talk, smile when you do so.
If you request an audience member to not engage in cross-talk, smile when you do so. If you hear a loud noise during your speech, smile while you wait for that noise to stop. Looking irritated, embarrassing an audience member or throwing a fuss about it is almost never helpful.
All of this helps a speaker adapt to interference and maintain the audience’s attention throughout the talk.
Related article: Why Eye Contact & Facial Expressions Will Make or Break Your Speech
Dealing with distractions when you speak can be difficult, especially when you’re starting out in your public speaking journey. And sadly, many distractions are not in our control. But the more you go up on stage, the more experiences you have, the better you become at dealing with these distractions and eventually, become a stronger speaker and communicator.