The prevalence of personal devices — from laptops to smartphones to tablets and now even smartwatches — poses a challenge for presenters. When you're speaking, you are trained to want an audience's undivided attention. It's natural to feel irritated or disheartened during a presentation when you see people looking down at their phones as opposed to looking up at you.
In today’s world, as a speaker, we may need a new mindset. An audience glued to their devices isn't always the kiss of death. In many ways, devices are simply another tool to help enrich and enliven your presentation — or at least something you can simply work around. Here's how:
The negative association we have with device usage has to do with the assumption that, when an audience member isn't focused solely on you, they aren't paying attention or that you are boring them. This is sometimes the case — but often this just means an audience member is multitasking.
Multitasking is something we all do every day, often to great effect. While divided attention is one aspect of it, multitasking helps us approach knowledge and ideas more broadly and can actually make your presentation multidimensional.
Why Are Audiences Using Their Devices?
The key is to understand why your audience is picking up that phone. In certain situations, you may actually want an audience to use their devices: they may be tweeting out your messaging or helping spread your insight to their followers. Alternatively, they may be cross-referencing a point you made or checking on a piece of data you cited, making it possible to more fully understand your content.
Casual and Confident
If you find during your presentation that only a select few audience members are on devices, don't freak out. The more interesting, casual, and confident you are, the more likely they will put their devices away.
In a keynote style presentation, simply walking to various parts of the room, may help alleviate the issue.
Pattern Disruption and Direct Engagement
Ultimately, self-assessment will be the test: am I a compelling speaker that captivates attention? No amount of direct appeals or stern warnings will help if the issue is boredom. Pattern disruption and direct engagement can tear an audience away from the glowing screens.
To break the pattern and rhythm of your presentation, if you are using visual aids, briefly blank the screen and open up the discussion for input. Pose rhetorical or thought-provoking questions. As a last-ditch effort, you can even comment on the process: mention that you notice a lack of engagement or excitement and ask for feedback.
Before you begin the presentation, research who will be in attendance. Learn audience member names and periodically sprinkle these names into your speech. Maybe credit something they said in a meeting or a particular insight they offered. When a person hears his or her name, they can't help but pay attention.
Heading It Off at the Pass
On the other hand, if you are firmly opposed to the use of devices during your presentation, the most effective strategy is to simply be upfront about it. Explain, at the outset, your agenda and the value of what you have to say and simply request that your audience refrain from using devices for a set duration.
Audiences who know from the outset that they'll only be away from their devices for 5, 10 or 20 minutes are more likely to be comfortable putting down the phone than if it's an indeterminate amount of time.
Be Conscious of Status
Of course, asking your audience to put devices away presumes it is appropriate of you to make this request. If you are presenting to key stakeholders who are of a higher position or status than you, telling them to put their phones away might not be an option.
In these circumstances, the goal is to stay steady and deliver your presentation with confidence. It may help to focus your attention on the audience members who are engaged and listening. By focusing on them, distracted audience members may end up putting down devices and paying closer attention — fearing they are "missing out" on something their colleagues are enjoying.
Devices can be a help or hindrance to a presentation. It falls on the presenter to do the work of setting expectations about device usage, embrace their power to disseminate your message and — barring that — amp up efforts to be engaging.