What’s the easiest way to identify an inexperienced public speaker?
fear reaction to distractions. Even experienced speakers often have fears and some inexperienced speakers don’t have fear at all. In my experience the biggest sign of inexperience is how the speaker reacts to distractions. Inexperienced speakers get tripped up by minor distractions, where experience speakers are able to flow with them.
In this post we limit our discussion to minor, external distractions. Examples include phones ringing, short whispers between audience members, and people entering late. Such distractions occur commonly, making them important to consider. More complex situations, like rude people, will be handled later; however, those situations don’t occur very often.
Getting tripped up
Inexperienced speakers sometimes handle the distraction itself poorly. Frequently, they fail to react directly to the situation, but overreacting can also occur. The inappropriate direct reaction isn’t optimal, but inexperience really shows in that they tend to get tripped up by these minor distractions.
The inexperienced speaker is taken off their game plan by the distraction. Their focus is suddenly on that distraction instead of the presentation, and they fail to get their focus back completely. Often this leads to self-consciousness and a deepening of typical social fears. The talk derails and most often is not brought back on course.
Experienced speakers have learned to just flow with minor distractions. They aren’t really a big deal and are fairly frequent. You probably don’t even realize how frequent they occur, because we really only notice them when the speaker gets tripped up.
Your goal should be not to get tripped up by the distraction. Even if you don’t handle it perfectly, as long as you can pick back up, you’ve won. Preparation is the only thing that really works beyond repeated experience of these situations. You want to be aware of what might happen and consider how to react. If possible, get experience with distractions.
So, how should you deal with minor distractions?
To react or not
Sometimes the right way to react is not to react at all, i.e. you just keep going with your presentation. How do you decide? Just look to see if the audience is distracted? If the audience is happy to ignore the situation, you should be too.
If a small portion of your audience is being distracted, e.g. by a whispered conversation, you need to make a judgment call. You’ll need to weigh the factors, like length of the distraction and is it a repeated distraction.
The distraction reaction
There are a number of different basic reactions that you can use.
Take a break
Distractions that fully divert the attention call for stopping your speech/presentation, at least temporarily. An example that has happened to me more than a few times is a very loud external sound, e.g. lawn mower, garbage truck, or even the applause from the next room at a conference. These distractions tend to drown out the talk; even if you can ‘talk over’ it, the audience isn’t like to actually process the information you present.
In a longer talk or or as part of a longer session, often a good way to handle this is just to make it a break for the audience (and yourself). Get people to stand up, stretch, maybe even move around. This will actually change the distraction into an opportunity for your audience to be able to better focus!
Stopping lesser distractions
Some minor distractions have to be addressed to get them to stop. These distractions are caused, either directly or indirectly, by audience members.
Essentially, all you want to do in this case is get the attention of the person(s) causing the distraction. As soon as they become aware, they’ll usually stop. The escalation, where the person just doesn’t care, is much more complex and a topic for another day.
I generally advise two methods: silence and deliberate movement. Details of these methods of recapturing attention are discussed below. Both are effective for addressing the distraction source in two ways.
First, they capture attention, sometimes even of the person(s) causing the distraction. They become self-aware and will address the situation themselves. This often works for things like repeated mobile phone notifications or lengthy whispered conversations.
Second, they turn social pressure into a positive tool, instead of just being the root of our fears. What typically happens is this induces audience members to act to stop the distraction. This might be gently nudging the snoring person or getting the attention of the two whispering. The biggest danger here is that the audience members might not address the issue in the best way.
Assuming you can keep your own focus, most distractions are actually fleeting. In these cases you just want to bring the audience attention back to the presentation. There are numerous ways you can do this; the most common are listed here.
If you are quick on your feet and humorous, you can use humor to bring attention back to your speech. This is a very effective method, particularly if you can tie in the distraction itself.
However, humor can also easily fall flat. Be careful not to offend. If you are going to go this way make sure you really are funny and quick on your feet, i.e. ask people who will be honest with you.
voice dynamics and body movement
Using your voice dynamics or by adding in some movement can be enough to recapture attention. If the disturbance is very minor or limited, you might be able to address the situation solely with one or multiple of these techniques.
Our voices provide a lot of potential dynamics, getting louder/softer, changing pitch, changing tone (timbre), etc. Drastic changes in these properties of our voices is quite effective in directing attention to our points and in this case ourselves. If you are already a very dynamic speaker, this may not well.
Movement naturally draws people attention. This is true of the person walking in late, but also of you. You can move to recapture attention. Although large arm movements may work, walking movements are generally easier, more natural, and more effective in this case.
What direction you walk depends on who you talk to. Walking towards the distraction is good for getting the attention of a person performing the distraction. Moving away can be effective, but not suggested if you are still talking. Walking to another side of the ‘stage’ is probably the easiest choice. No matter the direction, the key is to make sure it is a deliberate movement.
Silence is extremely effective. Just stop talking. A prolonged silence, of even a few seconds, will automatically draw the attention of most of your audience. It takes no skill, but some courage for those with a fear of public speaking. To pull it off, don’t cower; stand tall and rooted.
This is my go-to method. It also combines well with movement, particularly towards the distraction source.
It is worthwhile to prepare responses to common distractions. If you get stressed speaking in front of people or just aren’t that quick on your feet it is advisable. Having considered how you want to respond will help your ability to address the situation, without loosing your own way. Although a prepared response might not be as witty or targeted to the individual situation, there is a better chance you’ll be able to respond in a fairly natural way when the time comes.
Depending on where you are speaking these distractions are very common:
- phone ringing/notifications
- whispering (or louder talk)
- people entering or exiting distractingly
Keep in mind that prepared responses sometimes lead people to respond too heavily or quickly. You still need to consider if the situation needs to be addressed at all.
Your Distraction Reaction
Dealing with minor distractions can be handled with a small set of easy to learn methods. We discussed methods you can use to address distractions and get your audience’s attention back, like silence, movement, voice dynamics and humor.
The real key is not getting tripped up yourself. As the speaker, you are the leader in that moment, so if you flow with it, your audience will also. Experienced speakers have learned just to accept minor distractions and move gracefully on. With some planning and awareness, you’ll be ready to handle these little bumps in the road like a pro.