The next time you see a televised State of the Union address, a riveting motivational speaker, or even a memorial service for a national hero, notice shots of the audience. Frequently, you’ll see a distracted audience member. They’re reading a flyer, checking email, whispering to someone, or just gazing around at the crowd.
Occasionally, this happens on a large scale. Reasons vary: Equipment failure. A fire drill. Attendants start pushing rattling carts in the hallway. The CEO’s email hitting everyone’s phone to announce a major layoff.
Or maybe you make a shocking statement that contradicts conventional wisdom, and you see immediate pushback in facial expressions around the room.
Whatever the cause, you know you’ve lost the group’s attention. You need to do something quickly to re-engage them. But what?
When it’s obvious that everyone hears the outside noise, sees the water leak that’s started to drip from the ceiling, or becomes irritated with the annoying sound system, stop. Don’t deny reality and try to plow through the problem. Acknowledge what’s going on—with humor if you’re quick-witted. For common physical, equipment, and noise problems, have some “saver” lines ready for use.
Ask someone to attend to the problem. Or do so yourself. Like Linda, a colleague of mine. While delivering a training program to a small group of miners, she noticed their attention wane shortly after the lunch hour. They seemed to be staring out the window, totally ignoring her. Finally, she stopped and asked what was going on outside.
“Grady just rode up on a new bike. . . . A really nice bike.”
“Okay,” Linda said. “Let’s shut down 10 minutes and go out to see his bike.”
When they returned, she had their attention.
When the interruption cannot be ignored, acknowledge it, deal with it, then reengage.
Those audience members still engaged are focused on you. When you walk near or through a group that seems disengaged, they feel the attention of other eyes following you—and thus landing on them. As you get closer to them, your voice becomes louder, more compelling. The physical closeness mimics conversation. Ultimately, your nearness builds connection and they reengage.
Interrupt your presentation and tell the audience you’d like to hear from them on a key point. Try these techniques:
If you’ve been standing center stage, walk to the other side of the stage area and look across the crowd in another direction. If you’ve been trapped behind a lectern, walk around to the side so audience members can see you fully in the spotlight. Movement on stage—even if it’s walking to the backstage to get a sip of water—attracts attention.
Any of these techniques can work well on different occasions. Keep them in your toolbox for that next presentation when the unexpected happens.
Learn more ways to keep your audience engaged in Speak with Confidence!: Powerful Presentations That Inform, Inspire, and Persuade.