We tend to assume that if we say something in our presentations, people will get it. As if it was a direct brain-to-brain transfer of information.


In the courses that we run, we give a short presentation, and then ask the course participants to complete an exercise based on what we’ve said. When we first started out, we often found that as soon as we got participants started on the exercise, somebody would say “What am I supposed to do here?” We’d said it, but the participant hadn’t got it. We’ve got good at ensuring that participants get it by eliminating distractions.

The human brain is great at getting distracted. We work hard to stay focused but stray thoughts are coming into our minds all the time. This will happen despite your best efforts as a presenter – but you can help reduce the stray thoughts by eliminating distractions. Distractions are anything that cause a person in your audience to think about something different than what you are saying at that moment.

There are two causes of distractions:

  1. environmental distractions, and
  2. what you say and what you show.

I’ll cover environmental distractions in this post, and “What you say and what you show” in Part 2 tomorrow.

Environmental distractions

1. Physical comfort

It’s very hard to focus on a speaker when you’re not physically comfortable. Here are some things to check:

  • Room at the right temperature – not too cold, not too hot.
  • Frequent toilet breaks – you can’t concentrate with a full bladder (if you’re presenting after a refreshment break, I wouldn’t go longer than half-an-hour before offering a micro-break).
  • Lighting – check that nobody is suffering from sun in their eyes.
  • Hunger – if you’re hungry you start focusing on when lunch is going to be. Let your audience know so that they can relax knowing that food will be available soon. Don’t keep going past the time of the scheduled lunch break or tea break – people won’t be listening to you anyway!

2. Hot buttons

Some people get annoyed by little things and then they fixate on them. And stop listening to you.

  • A repetitive phrase – there’s a presenter on Radio New Zealand who constantly uses the phrase “if you like” when she’s interviewing people. If I don’t make an effort to focus on the substance of the discussion, I’m distracted by that phrase. A common issue is to say “OK” at the end of a sentence. You may not be aware that you have a repetitive phrase so ask an honest but compassionate friend to let you know – or video yourself. Bert Decker has a post on using video feedback to change verbal habits.
  • A repetitive gesture. For example, some men (it does just seem to be men) have a “policeman’s hop” – they rock backwards and forwards on their heels. Again call on that friend or the video to become aware of these.
  • Anything jangling as you move – keys, coins in pockets, jangly earrings or necklaces. If you’re wearing a lapel microphone, remove any necklaces so that they don’t bang into it.
  • And a different kind of hot button – women – if you look  toooo good, the men in the audience will get distracted.

3. Can they see?

Can every member of the audience see you and your slides clearly from their seat. Check out this post on seating from Tom Antion. Here are the most important points to look out for:

  • Are you getting into the beam of the datashow projector? Not only will some people in the audience not be able to see the slide, but some will start daydreaming about the various shape shadows you’re making. Before the start of your presentation, stick some duct tape down to remind you of where not to step to avoid going into the beam.
  • Are you physically getting in the way of the audience and the screen? This is a perennial problem. If the screen is in the middle of the room – it means you have to stand off to the side and you become more of a projectionist than a presenter. My recommendation is to place the screen slightly off-centre so that you can stay nearer the centre more of the time. We request a portable datashow screen so that we can decide where it should go. You may still have to check that everyone can see. If you see a person in the audience ducking and weaving that means they’re probably trying to find a way of seeing the slides. While they’re doing that they’re not listening to you.

4. People in the audience

Other people in the audience can be doing things which distract others – cellphones ringing, whispering to person next door, doodling, texting, dozing off. There’s a delicate judgement to be made here about when to intervene. Intervene too soon, and the whole of your audience may perceive you as coming down too hard, but leave it too long and you may be seen as lacking leadership.

I posted on how to handle these issues in my post Audience Management – Don’t copy your Teacher. But I don’t do anything about doodling. It doesn’t tend to distract anyone else. And some people listen better when they’re doodling – so leave them to it. (I’ve had doodlers come up to me afterwards, thanking me profusely for letting them doodle without drawing attention to it).

In tomorrow’s post, I’ll cover the distractions that can arise from what you say and what you show.

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