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.
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:
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.