How to Deal with Distractions During Your Presentation

As an executive speech coach I am sometimes asked, “How do I handle distractions?” Ringing cell phones and computer crashes can challenge anyone delivering a presentation. My friend Rob Sherman wrote this helpful article.

How to Deal with Distractions
by Rob Sherman

Presentation distractions are inevitable. You can’t avoid them. These unplanned events that divert the attention of the audience from your message come in all shapes and sizes …from the merely annoying (a cell phone rings) to the potentially more destructive (your laptop crashes).

Patricia Fripp Speaking at Lady & The Champs
Executive Speech Coach and Award-Winning Keynote Speaker, Patricia Fripp at Lady & The Champs Speakers’ Conference

How do you prepare for these inevitable presentation distractions? Follow these simple rules and you can handle most unplanned occurrences.

The most important rule is to watch your audience members when a distraction occurs. If they are ignoring it, so should you. But don’t disregard distractions that are noticed by your audience.

Recently I was conducting a presentation for the American Institute of CPAs in Maui. During my presentation, a hotel server was clanging dishes backstage. The people sitting in the front of the room were visibly distracted. I had to do something to quiet the room.

In this case, I simply said to my audience, “Excuse me for a moment.” I walked backstage and asked the surprised kitchen worker if he would stop what he was doing. I walked back on stage and continued my talk. (Fripp agrees. I have done the same…not in Maui!)

Of course, I could have asked an audience member if he or she would let the worker know that he was inadvertently disturbing our session. That would have also worked. Ignoring the distraction was not an option.

A cell phone goes off. What do you do? Oftentimes you can avoid this problem at the beginning of your session if a meeting planner or other event official will ask audience members to turn off their cell phones. This helps but doesn’t preclude an occasional cell phone disturbance.

Humor is an excellent way to handle cell phone distractions. When a cell phone goes off, I might say, “Oh, is that for me?” Or, I will wait until the “offender” silences the sound or leaves the room, talking his or her way into the hall. I smile and move on. Again, ignoring a ringing cell phone makes little sense since everyone’s attention is diverted. (Fripp tells them up front if a cell phone goes off there is an immediate fine that goes to my favorite charity…Nordstrom. Or, they can sing a showtune of their choice.)

Sometimes you are faced with an individual, small group, or an entire room of people who are talking. You can silence a room at the beginning of a presentation by asking your introducer to make an announcement just before your entrance. Your introducer could say, “We will begin in five minutes. Take time now to use the restroom or get coffee.” You should then start on time.

Silencing an individual or group of people in the middle of a talk is more difficult. Again, I will use humor to deal with these situations. I will stop the presentation and ask, “Will you share your comments with the group?” – imitating an impatient schoolteacher. Or, I will walk toward the talkers and place my hand lightly on a shoulder to silence the offender. This approach is risky. Hopefully, the conversation will cease before I arrive on the scene. In each instance, I maintain a friendly voice and a smile. I don’t want to offend the talkers since they may not even know they are distracting the entire group.

You are about to give your presentation when your computer crashes. You didn’t bring another computer and you begin to panic. This is more than a minor distraction. At that moment, it is a catastrophe.

If your audience is aware of the problem, address it. You might say, “I planned for this.” And smile. “We will use your handouts to go over the material. They just aren’t as pretty as the slides.” Confidently move forward with your presentation.

If the audience doesn’t know about the crash, consider moving forward as if nothing has happened. It is likely that no one will notice.

Planning ahead is another way to deal with distractions. If you are speaking at a luncheon, make sure the servers are not clearing tables or clanging dishes while you speak. (I learned this lesson the hard way.)

The underlying principle governing these distractions is simple: deal with them openly and with humor if possible. Use these situations as a way to connect with the audience and to show your humanness. Distractions interfere with all of life’s events; yours just happened in front of 200 people!

Rob Sherman, JD is the author of Sherman’s 21 Laws of Speaking: How to Inspire Others to Action.

This article originally appeared in SpeakerFrippNews, my public speaking and presentation skills newsletter offering help for speakers of all levels. You can subscribe by visiting:

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Executive Speech Coach and Hall of Fame Keynote Speaker Patricia Fripp works with individuals and companies who realize that powerful, persuasive presentation skills give them a competitive edge.