You’re written a good presentation, developed slides which were visual and colourful. You’ve rehearsed, standing up, using gestures, making sure your voice was loud and clear. As a result your nerves were under control..
When you delivered the presentation to the audience, people worked on their laptops. One person made (or took) a phone call. One checked e-mails, another sent a text message. Someone posted a remark about your presentation on Twitter. Another person stared out the window, then when bored, off into space. One got up to find the restroom. Two in the back had a side conversation, whispering. A woman in the front doodled in her notes. Most strange, a man next to her simply sat there, staring. He was doing nothing at all.
When you tried to engage them – perhaps with a question – you got a generic, one-word answer. Worst of all, from the weird man at the front who’s been staring relentlessly at you, no response at all.
In every presentation skills workshop, participants offer all sorts of examples how an audience is disruptive – multi-tasking, not paying attention, not engaging. Last week, one woman put it most succinctly. What if the audience is rude?
What is rudeness? And who’s the judge?
A basic definition of rudeness is discourteous or impolite behaviour, usually deliberate. More so, it’s subjective. It’s a judgment by one person of another’s behaviour. Is an audience member’s behaviour rude to you? Yes, probably. But is it rude to them? To others? Perhaps … but here’s where you need to be careful. What’s rude to you may not be rude to them. Their behaviour – to them – is most likely normal, and certainly not deliberate. So what do you do?
1. Don’t assume an audience member isn’t paying attention.
People listen and engage in different ways. Some people fidget, move, doodle. Others – like the man staring at you – are passive, almost lifeless. Don’t assume that how they behave distracts them from taking in information.
Some audience members find it very difficult simply to sit still, to do nothing. Whether they know it consciously or not, these people need to multi-task as a way to engage or concentrate. According to research conducted by Jackie Andrade at the School of Psychology at the University of Plymouth, UK, doodling may significantly help people remember information and focus the mind. Additional research says some people take notes as a way to keep them centred on the conversation. I had a woman in a workshop recently who keep fiddling with her Blackberry. At the break, when I gently asked what she was working on, she showed me that she was using her smartphone to take notes that she could send to her team at the break.
Can they really be engaged if they’re writing e-mails or sending text messages? I don’t know, but that’s not our concern. Instead, I try to set boundaries at the beginning. In my introduction, I tell people I’m fine with participants sending text messages or emails as long as they’re discreet. Go the bathroom if you want, but do it quietly. Take a phone call, but leave the room and come back in quietly.
Second, this type of behaviour is usually short-lived. Most people who send SMSs usually finish in 30-60 seconds, afterwards they quickly re-connect to the group. So, I suggest you ignore it. But at the same time, make sure to have clear and accurate titles on your slides. It’s the first place people look to figure out where the presenter is at when they rejoin. If your slide titles are vague, it takes them longer to re-engage.
While some people fidget, others are motionless. Learning Styles research shows certain people prefer to reflect on what they hear, and as they reflect, their body is idle. In other words, they don’t need to move to think. It might feel odd to you to have someone simply stare at you, not moving. But haven’t you too been in that same position in the audience? You were simply sitting, listening? Distinguish between people who are passively listening, and those who have mentally left the room. As before, ignore the behaviour – but at some point, gently ask if they have any questions or want to comment. If they say no, then move on.
In the end, don’t take the audience’s behaviour personally.
2. Some disruptive behaviour is obvious, so get ahead of it.
The operative word is ‘obvious’ – that is, a person’s behaviour is clearly disruptive to several people, if not the entire group. If it is, gently call it aloud. Side conversations are not just distracting to you, but to the group. First, ask if they’re discussing something which may be interesting the group. Sometimes it is. Most times it’s not, and by calling it out, it’s done. The same is true of people who are surfing the net or engaging in an activity not associated with the meeting. Tell them it’s not acceptable at the beginning. Ask them why (not ‘if’) they need their laptop, and if it’s a good solution, tell them to be discreet – as well as make a point to the group so everyone else knows they’re constantly typing. People who constantly leave the room are more difficult to address. I tend to ask at a break if they need to go back to the office. That usually gives them the ‘out’ they want to leave, or that they need to stay in the room.
In general, most people are polite – but it’s the 1% that makes you want to gnash your teeth. My worst offender ever was a man who showed up for a training and watched videos (with the sound off) during the workshop. At the break, I asked him to stop or to leave. He gave me a scowl and said he’d say something to his boss. I thought, like what? “Gee Dad, the teacher won’t let me watch True Lies during today’s workshop.” My rule of thumb is that audience members must take responsibility for whether they want listen or not, so I fall back on a piece of advice from my grandmother. Treat people as adults until they prove otherwise.
3. Be relevant and enthusiastic.
Whereas the previous two points have more to do with assuming information about the audience, this point is mandatory for you, as the speaker. Audience members ultimately want only two things from the presenter. One: be relevant. Don’t waste their time. Two: be enthusiastic. If you’re not interested in your own topic, your audience never will be.
Look at your content. Is it about you, or is it about the audience? Is the overall tone “me-me-me”, or are you offering the audience explicit and specific actions? Are your messages written from the point-of-view of the audience? Where’s the objective of your presentation in the document itself? Near the front, or near the back? Who’s the objective ultimately benefit? If the answer if you, then you aren’t being engaging. Who’s the one being rude now?
Any other tips on handling audiences’ behaviour?