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Dangerous Distractions

In most social situations, the last thing I want to do is draw attention to myself – such is the curse of shyness.  I already feel - secretly believe – that people pay far more attention to me than they really do.

Public speaking isn’t like that.

When you are performing in front of a crowd, speaking in public, presenting to the board, what you want is for people to hear your message.  And that means you want people to pay attention to you.  In previous articles I’ve written about grabbing the attention, and using stagecraft to keep people interested, but there is one more thing we need to do – and that is avoid anybody, or anything else becoming more interesting that you.

There are a variety of things which will distract people.  Phones are distracting – not just because they buzz in someone’s packet causing that person to (hopefully) leave the room in order to take the call – but also because the ring tone can irritate others in the room, and because these days phones are themselves attention magnets, allowing the crowd to text, tweet, and surf the web.  So where it is possible, please encourage to set phones to silent and put them away.

In other settings, it is increasingly common to see people using their laptops while you’re talking.  And if your crowd are anything like, me, they will soon be drawn away from the ostensible use of note taking, to surfing the web.  This is why I always try to make sure people are aware that full notes will be available  after the session.

The notes are available after the session, because notes are distracting too.  If you hand out notes before you speak, not only will people be tempted to annotate them, they’ll also choose to read the note rather than actually listen to what you’re saying.  So while a handout is important, handing it out after the session (but making sure people know it will be available before you start talking) is a must.

If notes are bad, so too are slides.  The moment you put slides up on a screen behind you, people’s attention is grabbed away from what you’re saying and onto whatever you’ve written.  We can’t help but read.  If you’ve filled a slide with bullet points, or covered it with text, we are going to read everything – and we’ll certainly read it faster than you’re going to say them.  We’ll miss any extras you’re adding – and we’ll be borded by you, because we’ll always be ahead.

In short, don’t write things on slides.

Sometimes you can’t avoid slides.  And sometimes a lack of slides will make you look unprepared.  So my solution is simple:  Think of your presentation like a magazine article.  Only use slides where a magazine article would put something that isn’t in the main body of the text:  perhaps a graph.  Perhaps a title.  Maybe, if you really have to, a quote.  Photos are great.  If you can find a photo (or take a photo) which illustrates some aspect of what you’re talking about, put it up there, then ignore it (other than maybe to say who the photo shows) – after all, if you’re telling a story with a hero, there is nothing wrong with letting people get a picture of what the hero looks like.

Diagrams can go on slides – sometimes diagrams can be really useful to help explain what is going on – and you have the chance to animate things, which helps further.  But when you’re done with the diagram, get rid of it.  And make sure you recapture the crowds attention.

Beyond slides, there are other things that can lose the attention of the audience.  Technical problems are the most frequent – so be prepared – make sure you’re not relying on technology.  If you’ve followed my advice about slides, everything will work, even without them, so you should be fine.  If you’ve followed my advice about speaking, you should be able to project your voice so a microphone won’t be necessary.  Sometimes you have to rely on technology – in videoconferences and webinars, for instance.  In these cases, get everything checked out before you start.  Have a test drive. When technology fails, you’re not just wasting your own time, and losing all the benefits you have gained from cleverly designing your speech, you’re also wasting the valuable time of all of your audience.  In my view, that isn’t just lazy or incompetent behaviour, it is outright rude.

If you are using technology, also, get somebody else to control it (except for the slide clicker, which you should never let anybody control – as telling someone to change to the next slide is also very distracting).  You should rehearse your presentation, so that the person controlling the technology knows what to do without being told.

One time I failed to do this, I was demonstrating a piece of software, while also controlling it.  I had failed to realise I would be speaking with a hand held microphone.  So there I was, on stage, mouse in one hand, microphone in another.  I was thinking about the microphone and mouse so much, and worrying about what was on the screen to such an extent, that I forgot to look up and engage with the audience.  Right there I learned my lesson – please learn it too, so that you never make the same mistake.