How to deal with mobile devices when you are on stage

Let’s be honest. There have been times when you checked your smartphone while sitting in the audience during a presentation. Maybe you were waiting for a message; maybe you were checking up on an important matter; maybe you just wanted to check the time. But you’ve done it. I know I have. It happens all the time.

in the audience are a fact of life for public speakers
A reality of modern life.

Yet for many of us, when the shoe is on the other foot—when we are the ones on stage and we look out and see people looking at their phone screens—it bothers us. It shouldn’t. We live in a digital age and if you are going to present, you are going to have to get used to seeing smartphones and tablets in the audience. 
Here are some tips to help you deal with the reality of mobile devices:

1. Don’t overthink things

You might think that people are looking at their smartphones because they are not interested in what you are saying. Well, you might be right. It’s not ideal, but it happens. Especially in large audiences. You will not hold everyone’s attention all the time. (For ideas on how to keep your audience engaged, check out this post and also the final point below.)
But there could be other reasons. That woman to your left? She might be waiting to hear news about a big deal she has been working on for the past three months that could make or break her career. That fellow in the front row? Maybe his child was up all night with a fever and he is just checking in with his wife to see how things are. That woman to your right? Why, she might be on Twitter writing something like “Awesome presentation on [subject] by [@yourname]. #conferencename”
The fact is, you cannot be sure why people are on their mobile devices. So don’t worry about it. Instead, get over yourself and focus on your presentation and the people who are paying attention. If your material and delivery are good, the people who are texting or reading will, in all likelihood, come back.

2. Don’t ask people to put their mobile devices away

I have seen speakers start their presentation by asking the audience members to put their mobile devices away. Bad move. It can alienate people and make you come across as condescending. And it usually doesn’t work. In extreme cases, they might react like this:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=smZMqOghnjw&w=560&h=315]

Note that the situation is different for events such as theatrical performances when the room is dark and the glow on the screen distracting. In such cases, people should be asked to put their devices away before the show begins. Otherwise, they risk actors like Patti Lupone or Kevin Spacey taking matters (or your phone) into their own hands.

3. You can ask people to mute their smartphones

It is completely acceptable to ask people to put their smartphones on silent mode. And I am not just talking about muting the ring tone; all sounds should be turned off. It is very annoying to sit next to someone whose device “clicks” every time they type a letter. If people are going to use their mobile devices, they should be silent and unobtrusive.
Ideally, the request should come from someone other than the speaker; for example, the host of the event or the person who introduces the speaker. If nobody address the issue, a speaker has two options: make the request at the start of the talk; or wait until an issue arises and then decide whether to address it. I favour the latter option as the former takes away from your opening, which is a critical time for any talk.

4. Have short phrases that are worth sharing

A short, memorable phrase is like manna from heaven for people who use social media. It is the digital equivalent of a 10-second soundbite on the evening news. As you prepare for your speech or presentation, think about memorable lines that people will be likely to repeat and share on their smartphones. Rhetorical devices are  a great way to make a sentence memorable.
In fact, you can go one step further. You (or the event organizer) can create a hashtag for the event and encourage audience members to share thoughts on social media. Your message to a room of hundreds now has the potential to reach thousands or even millions.

5. Use the audience members’ devices to your advantage

The chances are good that most people in your audience will have smartphones, tablets or laptops with them. Why not use them to your advantage? Today, there is a wealth of apps and simple software that allow you to poll your audience and see the results in real time. If your presentation lends itself to asking the audience multiple choice questions, you might want to consider this option. Three examples can be found here, here and here. Three other examples can be found in this blog post. (The post is in Finnish, but the videos for the three services are in English.)

6. Give a great presentation or speech

The most important advice of all. When you engage your audience with meaningful content, compelling stories, well-designed slides and solid delivery, maintaining people’s attention won’t even be an issue. The principle is straightforward and easy to express, but I cannot stress it enough. Put in the work and do a great job.

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10 Replies to “How to deal with mobile devices when you are on stage”

  1. Good advice here on a very thorny subject for speakers. Have you come accross the issue of members of the audience recording a live performance? The effect on a speaker must be quite disturbing – it’s not an officially approved recording and nobody knows where it will end up. This problem has been recently highlighted by Benedectic Cumberbatch on stage playing Hamlet – http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2015/aug/10/benedict-cumberbatch-hamlet-barbican-fans
    Thoughts?

    1. Thanks for the comment, Antonina, and thanks for the article and video about the incident involving Benedict Cumberbatch.
      Videoing a speaker is a whole other issue. And for the most part, the rule is (or should be) simple: If the speaker says it is OK, then fine. If the speaker does not want to be videoed, then people should respect that. One exception that comes to mind is where the speaker agrees, prior to the event, to allow filming by the organizing company. For example, when I spoke at the TEDx Lausanne in 2014, I had to sign a release allowing TED the right to film my speech and release it to the public.
      But generally, a speaker should decide whether he or she is videoed or not. I may end up writing a separate post on this. Thanks for the idea!

  2. Reblogged this on Brinker Toastmasters and commented:
    Here’s some great advice from John Zimmer, relevant at least because most of have smartphones and tablets are sometimes visible at our meetings. In a larger context I appreciate that I’m able to keep up easily with what’s going on at larger events such as the recent International Convention.
    I especially like the first of John’s points, and I’d like to see District Officers encourage Toastmasters to share more information from TLI and District Conferences. I’m also really intrigued by the instant polling services John refers to in his fifth point, not just for audience participation but for polling a potential audience to find out what issues are of concern and interest to them.
    How do you react?

  3. Thanks for a great article John.
    We’ve developed an app for presentations that lets people take notes against the slides, ask questions, share material on social media and download the slides plus other relevant files … all during the presentation (see http://www.prezentt.com ). As such, we actively encourage people to use their phones, tablets and laptops while the speaker is talking!
    To generalize, what we’ve found is that younger speakers (aged 30 or less) realize that using a phone/tablet is how many people in their audience take notes these days so they’re fine with it. Most older speakers (50+) still have the view that “everyone should be looking at me” so they’re less comfortable when the audience pulls out their phone during their presentation. Speakers between 30-50 could go either way.
    Just as many people used to be scared of online banking & now everyone uses it, we believe that eventually, using your phone/tablet during the presentation will also become the norm. As you’ve highlighted, there are so many positive benefits!

    1. Thanks for the comment. I suppose I am in the minority, then, as I am 50+ but don’t mind if people use their phone or tablet. As long as they do it quietly! The comparison with online banking is a good one. I wasn’t sure about it when it came out, but today, it easily makes up the bulk of my banking activity. Things evolve and public speaking is no exception.
      I will have a look at your app. Best of luck to you with it.

  4. I agree with these suggestions in speaking. In training events, where people are expected to participate and electronic device use prevents that, it’s a little different. Sometimes people are literally just on the device during the entire training, completely disengaged on purpose, and then expect credit for the training. They also derail group participation. Additionally, I’ve seen people in trainings passing devices around to others, causing distraction. Glowing screens distract in dark spaces, so I often get other participants complaining about it. Mobile devices don’t bother me as much when I’m speaking, but they do when I’m training and their use is excessive. It’s lovely to say, “Let’s just be really Zen about this,” but we know that people truly can’t perform two verbal tasks at the same time, so they aren’t listening when they’re texting or reading. Fine for short bursts, but problematic with long-term use. The difficulty comes with what you do to respond. If you address it, even privately, the person inevitably gets mad, even if you do it nicely. If you don’t address it, other problems arise. I like your ideas, and I think there is room for more discussion on this.

    1. Hi Lisa. Thank you for the the thoughtful and detailed comment. I agree with you that a training, which usually lasts much longer than a speech or presentation, is a different animal. This is especially so where the participants are expected to participate fully in order to get credit for completing the course. One thing you could do at the outset is stress that participation is necessary in order to receive credit so people should plan to be present and not spend inordinate amounts of time on their cell phones.
      I have been luck with my trainings over the years in that I cannot recall a time when a person’s cell phone use has been truly egregious. Yes, there have been times when a phone has rung, but people either step out of the room for a couple of minutes or just mute the phone and don’t answer. I also make sure that that the breaks and lunch are sufficiently long for people to check email, etc. so that they can focus when the training resumes.
      Finally, when cell phone use becomes distracting to others, the speaker or trainer must step in. Doing so might not be easy, but the speaker / trainer owes it to the other participants.

      1. I agree with all of your thoughts. I train teachers, primarily, who (and I AM a teacher!) are the most difficult audience. I have seen everything. It’s a lesson in social psychology to watch, truly. I don’t typically have control over the granting of credit, but I’m going to explore that idea a little more. Thanks for the thought-provocation.

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