Handling Distractions: Acknowledge, Don’t Ignore

International Relations professor Robert Kelly became a global YouTube sensation a few weeks ago when his children interrupted a BBC interview he was doing from his home office. It’s been viewed so many times that we really don’t have to show it to you. But we will anyway, because it’s not just funny—it’s hilarious. Watch it for yourself by clicking here.

Back when Ronald Reagan was in office, and shortly after he was shot in an assassination attempt, he was giving a speech during which a balloon popped. He stopped his speech, exclaimed “MISSED ME!” and continued with his remarks.

This leads us to the question—how do you handle distractions so that people can remain focused on your message?

There are many ways that an audience can get distracted during a presentation. And for the purpose of this particular discussion, let’s be sure to include one-on-one meetings, phone and video conversations, and any other type of presentation that technology has now made available to us.

As the presenter, realize that distractions can range from things within your control to circumstances that are far beyond your control. Some examples:

  • You have a black eye, a big cast on your hand, or some other visible issue.
  • You can’t stop coughing, or you begin to noticeably perspire.
  • There is a problem with the room, such as unexpected noises in the background, temperature issues or problems with the sound system.
  • Unexpected noises fill the space, such as babies crying, dogs barking, or police sirens.
  • Your slides become out of sync, you lose your place in your notes, or find you are missing a page or a key visual aid.
  • Any one of hundreds of other kinds of distractions that you can’t even predict.

Often, a presenter’s first impulse is to plow through the distraction as if there is no problem. In February 2013, for instance, when Senator Marco Rubio gave the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union address, he had a case of dry mouth and awkwardly guzzled a bottle of water without taking a break, causing both speaker and audience to lose focus.

Our recommendation about distractions is this: DO NOT IGNORE THEM. Distractions happen all the time, and while they are sometimes embarrassing, people will remember them more than your message unless you take action. ACKNOWLEDGE THE DISTRACTION.

Here’s an example of how you might handle a distracting situation. My business partner gave a speech a few years back and, in the middle of his presentation, the maintenance crew in the back of the room started to move things around, breaking down tables and making quite a bit of noise. People in the audience, clearly distracted, were turning their heads around to see where the noise was coming from. He paused, then quickly invited everyone to take a look behind them and wave at the people who were making the noise. Then, after everyone had a good laugh, he said, “Now that we’ve got THAT part out of the way, let’s continue.”

Do your best to acknowledge and disarm distractions. When you notice your audience might be distracted:

  1. Pause and take a short break.
  2. Acknowledge the distraction and, if necessary, take a moment to resolve it. (Get some water, get the kids/dogs out of the office, get your slides caught up.)
  3. If it helps, lighten up the situation. Say something like “that’s not the way we planned it” or laugh about it. (Remember what Jimmy Kimmel said last month when they realized that the Academy had just announced the wrong winner for Best Picture: “I just knew I would screw this up.”)
  4. Continue on when ready.

Worst-case scenario when your audience is distracted—they remember only the distraction and lose track of the important message you were sharing. Best case—they bond with you, they understand that you’re human, and decide to listen more attentively.

And remember what happened AFTER the now-famous BBC interview with Robert Kelly—they invited him back on a few days later, this time with his wife and two children in the room with him, where they laughed together about the original interview and talked about the impact it made in social media circles. Watch that interview by clicking here.

Closed Circuit to those who can anticipate distractions: If you have to walk in on crutches or spilled mustard on your tie at lunch, take a moment to acknowledge what happened in advance. You’d rather have people listening to your brilliant thoughts on how to break through the marketing clutter than having them wonder “I wonder how she hurt her foot?” or “Does he know he has a stain on his tie?”

Similarly, we often see presenters who get interrupted by phone calls. It’s usually good practice to turn your phone off, but sometimes you’re expecting a call that you have to take. We’re not referring to the call that updates you on your NCAA bracket, but perhaps the one from your pregnant wife telling you that IT’S TIME! If you’re expecting an important phone call, let your audience/client/associates know in advance why you’ll be leaving your phone on.

Eliot M. Shapiro, EMS Communications Co-founder and Principal, is an experienced training facilitator and presentation coach with a passion for public speaking and teaching. For 20+ years, he has helped individuals and teams realize their own potential, sharing his enthusiasm with thousands of people. He lives by the same philosophy he encourages in his clients: you don’t always have to act serious to be taken

Since 1998, EMS Communications has been on a mission to “rid the world of boring presentations, one speaker at a time!” They accomplish this by helping individuals and teams improve their leadership, presentation and communication skills. Their services include private executive coaching, customized corporate workshops and open-to-the-public presentation skills seminars.

Visit their website at www.PresentationTrainers.com

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