A study by Pew Research Center reports that, as of November 2016, a whopping 77 percent of all Americans own smartphones; most report having their phones by their side nearly every moment of everyday. Take a minute to let that sink in: more than three-quarters of the U.S. population owns a smartphone, and the average user engages with his device nearly two times a minute. That's a staggering figure.
What's more, a study by the University of Chicago shows that just by having the devices nearby, people's ability to focus is undercut even when they resist the temptation to check their phones continuously.
"Even when people are successful at maintaining sustained attention -- as when avoiding the temptation to check their phones -- the mere presence of these devices reduces available cognitive capacity," researchers concluded.
That's a hard pill to swallow for a public speaker who wants an audience's rapt attention.
In this age of hyper-connectivity when even the President of the United States finds it impossible to put down his cell phone, it's hard (unrealistic, even) to expect an audience's attention not to wander during a presentation. Distractions abound.
Still, that doesn't mean you can't deliver an outstanding talk that leaves audience members feeling like they got their time and money's worth. It simply means you have to adjust your style and meet the audience where it's at. After all, when delivering a presentation, it's never about you. It's always about the audience.
Here are five ways to overcome distractions and deliver an attention grabbing talk.
1. Set Expectations
I once had a university professor march into class on the first day and make this announcement: "Listen up: we're all adults here. If you have to use the john, just get up and go. If you have to leave early or show up late, that's on you. If you miss something, it's your responsibility to get caught up. My job is to teach. Your job is to learn. Now let's have some fun."
Though his delivery was a bit unorthodox (at least for the time and place), he offered a valuable lesson that's served me well as a public speaker. From the beginning, this gem of a man taught me the value of setting expectations at the beginning of a talk (asking the audience politely to silence their phones when appropriate), treating others as adults (after all, it's not high school), and creating a friendly atmosphere where people can listen and learn in a way that suits them.
The lesson has stuck.
2. Be Easy About It
Rather than demanding people face the front of the room and give you their undivided attention like a stuffy school teacher, be easy about it. As speaker Tim Cigelske writes, "Given the choice, most people would rather chat informally with a friend than be required to sit at attention during a speech. People tend to remember interactions with friends, so turn your speech into something that resembles that situation."
That said, creating a relaxed environment doesn't mean professionalism goes out the window. It simply means loosening your tie (or scarf) a little.
3. Don't Add To The Distractions
Make no mistake, there will be distractions. There will be a rogue cell phone that goes off in the middle of a talk. There will be the person who (heaven forbid!) answers the phone in the middle of your talk. You can't keep distractions from happening. You either ignore them, address them or incorporate them into your talk. What you should never do, though, is add to the distractions.
I once attended an event where the speaker's own cell phone started ringing! (And no, it wasn't part of his talk.) From the look on his face, he obviously goofed. Many would argue he should never have had it in his pocket in the first place. At a minimum, he should have checked before walking out on stage.
Whatever the case, don't be the one to add to the distractions. That includes wearing squeaky shoes, hats that cast shadows on your face, too much bling, or anything else that takes away from message.
4. Engage The Audience
The best way to keep an audience's eyes on you (and not on their smartphones) is to involve them in the conversation whenever possible. Audience participation is key to creating and sustaining attention. So instead of banning phones, you can encourage your audience to post photos of the event to social media, tweet parts of the talk, or even livestream.
Tim Cigelske shares his experience of being at a live event where speaker and social media expert Chris Brogan prompted his audience to whip out their phones and share the love.
"By encouraging people to tweet and post on Facebook, he was expanding his reach far beyond the room," Cigelske writes for Toastmasters. "Additionally, audience members who participate this way during presentations become more engaged and attentive; they focus on conveying the speaker's main points for the digital sound bites they post for social media users."
Another benefit, he adds, is that "by reading these posts later, the speaker gets instant feedback and sees what was most memorable to the audience or what may have fallen flat."
5. Stay In The Moment
Keynote speaker Mike Ganino uses improvisation skills he learned at Chicago's famed Second City to course correct when he gets thrown off track. It allows him, he says, to stay in the moment. Ganino now teaches other speakers and executives how to use improv to overcome distractions and "create on-the-fly" - which, he points out, is not synonymous with "winging it."
"As a public speaker, improv is such a great skill set because it helps you to notice what's going on with your audience, helps you create content and it helps you adapt," Ganino says in this interview. "It helps you be in the moment more."
Now It's Your Turn
Which of these five points did you find useful? How do you handle distractions? Share your thoughts on Twitter or in the comments.