Do you act confidently in the event of unplanned interruptions and disruptions? You can influence a lot with your personal attitude. As a speaker you are most likely sensitive to any kind of disruption. Can you differentiate between trivial disturbances and those where you need to intervene? With a portion of serenity and good preparation you will act with confidence. And with an entertaining, interesting lecture you will have the audience on your side: They will follow you attentively and can hardly be distracted. In the latter event, it does not have to be your fault: You cannot know in advance whether a listener is ill, mentally worried about her private situation or has another important appointment. As long as there are only individual participants who do not disturb your presentation any further, you can neglect them.
However, you should remain sensitive to the atmosphere and mood changes in order to prevent disturbances: If there are noticeably many people in the audience not paying attention, this might indicate that they cannot follow the content. To prevent this from happening, you can design interactive presentations: Ask the audience questions and allow short answers depending on the situation. This way you ensure variety and allow fresh suggestions or simply clarify open questions. For this you may deliberately plan a time buffer in advance in order to adhere to the presentation time. Nevertheless, unexpected disruptions can occur time and again, which you can adjust to in advance and then react to with confidence.
In one of my conference speeches, which had started less than two minutes before, a couple well known to the participants and beyond the age of 80 years entered the lecture hall. This couple immediately attracted the attention of all the audience as they slowly climbed up the stairs and sat down at a high seat. I only continued my lecture after a half minute break. If I had not taken this break, most of the audience would have been distracted at first. What was important was that I could immediately pick up where I left off.
During my studies I enthusiastically attended many lectures. I listened to the presentations with great interest, while once two less attentive students preferred to talk about a completely different topic. The professor reacted politely, but firmly with the words: “This lecture is a voluntary event. You are most welcome to attend. You are also welcome to chat – but please do so outside the lecture hall…” The two students immediately went quiet, and like all other students I was able to follow the actual topic again. Alternatively, the lecturer could also have asked the two students if they had any questions or comments about the content of the lecture.
Dealing with active and passive participants
It may also happen that your audience tries to draw you out of your reserve with specific questions. If the latter relates to the topic, it is best to comment directly. I myself am a friend of animated discussion, in which different points of view are taken up and personal experiences are brought in. But if I get the impression that a question is intended to direct the discussion in a completely different direction, I remain consciously on the factual level: I will keep it short and return to the main topic in the following sentence.
Passive or “silent” listeners are usually more difficult to assess. They rarely or not at all participate in discussions. In my experience, they usually pay particular attention to lectures; they take notes and occasionally make eye contact with the speaker. In a personal conversation, they often demonstrate profound expertise and ask well-founded questions. This is why I always actively involve them in discussions by asking relatively simple questions. They receive particularly positive feedback on the basis of openly shared agreement and appreciation: “Thank you for your valuable contribution. You have brought the aspect…wonderfully to the point!”
Turn on your smartphone
In order to reduce distractions caused by ringing mobile phones and smartphones, it helps to inform your audience at the beginning of an event: “…and please remember to turn your smartphone on again when the discussion is over.” This has a friendly and positive effect instead of being patronizing. Some people in the audience even have a smile on their face afterwards. But expect to hear some ringtones anyway.
A (hopefully only small) part of your audience will also be busy using their mobile phone or smartphone during your presentation. In the best case, they will be researching on the internet about your topic or information about you, or sharing information about your event on social media like Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Others are simply not interested in the topic and set different priorities. As long as the vast majority of the audience is listening, you can be sure that your presentation will be interesting and entertaining.
But what do you do if parts of the audience leave your lecture or seminar ahead of time? In the best case, individual participants will tell you beforehand that they will have to leave early because of another date, for example. Others will get up without comment and leave the room. You may wonder if your presentation was less than interesting or whether you did something wrong. In individual cases you would rather not intervene. If the third participant leaves early at the latest, however, you can ask questions in order to encourage dialog: “I have the impression that things are getting restless right now. For what point would you like more information?” Are you already close to the time limit? Is the disturbance increasing and do you notice an atmosphere of departure? Then you should honestly say that you will finish your presentation in two or at the latest five minutes – and keep this promise. Conversely, I have even overdrawn a 90-minute seminar by ten minutes. Nevertheless, the students all stayed until the end and continued a stimulated discussion.
No matter what kind of disturbances happen in your presentation: Appreciate your audience and always treat them with respect! Most people will be positive or at least neutral towards you. Sovereignty and a portion of serenity will help you to succeed in your next speech.
This post is also available in: German