How to Recover a Distracted Audience

By Heather Baldwin

No matter how great a presenter you are, no matter how well you follow all the expert advice for giving great presentations, at some point it’s going to happen. In the middle of a presentation you’ll notice a couple of audience members whispering to each other. If the exchange is short, it’s no big deal. When the culprits continue talking, it’s not only rude, it can be unnerving. David Richardson, a professional speaker and founder of Richardson Resource Group, experts in presentation consulting, offers the following tips for recovering distracted audience members.

  • 1. Move closer to the people who are not paying attention. This works particularly well if your audience is seated in a U shape. Walk into the U, briefly stop in front of the whisperers while completing your point and then walk back to the front of the room.
  • 2. Mention the person’s name in the context of your presentation. You might say: When I was talking with Mary yesterday she mentioned ABC Company’s biggest concern right now is on-time delivery from its suppliers. Make sure you use the name in a positive or neutral manner, not in a manner that is derogatory.
  • 3. Ask a question. People listen to questions, particularly if they’ve been talking and think they might have missed something directed at them. You might ask a rhetorical question, such as: How would your company change if it could manufacture its widget twice as fast? Or you could ask the guilty audience member his or her opinion about something. Just be sure to preface the question with the individual’s name so you get his or her attention, as in: Jim, what do you think about….
  • 4. Cite an example and sandwich the offender’s name between those of two others. You might say: So let’s say, Bob, that you’re getting ready to conduct an online meeting with Bill and Jennifer. You just regained the offender’s attention, says Richardson.
  • 5. Use a dramatic pause. Silence is a powerful tool. It is an extraordinarily effective way to drive home a point you’re about to make. If the whispering audience members are still talking, they’ll stand out and, more importantly, will probably stop talking immediately to hear the great wisdom you’re about to impart.
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