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I was speaking with a prospective client yesterday who mentioned his problems with focus when speaking. He talked about being easily distracted.
This is one of those critical aspects of speaking that we rarely talk about. Let's look at two kinds of focus problems.
"I'm distracted by what's going on 'out there.'"
There are so many external distractions during a presentation. Here are a few:
Restless, shifting or whispering audience members
Waiters serving food or removing dishes
The sound of another presentation in the next room
Traffic noise from outside
A window looking out on the street, at people walking by, or worse, the ocean!
A room that's too cold or too hot
Audience members who are texting or tweeting
Noisy air conditioning or other equipment
A door that closes loudly when people enter or exit
A ringing cell phone
These are just a few of the external distractions you might encounter; I've encountered all of them and more!
External distractions lead to internal discomfort. For example, when audience members seem distracted themselves by shifting or texting, you might begin to feel uncertain that you're keeping their attention and delivering a good presentation.
If there is a noise distraction, you might feel worried that the audience can't hear you.
If there is a comfort distraction, you might feel cold or hot yourself and be unable to concentrate.
Next, "I'm distracted by what's going on 'in here.'"
These are your own mental distractions. Here are a few you might experience (from this blog post):
What did I just say?
Am I pacing? Stop pacing.
Stop fiddling with the remote.
What comes next? What comes after that?
My stomach feels funny.
I'm running behind. Should my activity take five minutes or three?
That person's not paying attention. How do I get her attention?
Uh oh, crutch phrase.
I need a drink of water.
What was the name of the guy who asked that question before?
Why did I wear these shoes?
Was that clear? Maybe I should explain it again.
These are distractions that you create in your own mind, an inner monologue that starts to overpower your focus on your presentation and your audience.
Ultimately, external and internal distractions lead to the same result: they keep you from being fully present with your audience, from reading their cues, and from making a connection with them.
In meditation practice, we are told to let thoughts come and go, observe them, but to gently return focus back on the breathing, the spot, the flame, the phrase, the mantra or whatever else we are focusing on. This is also what I recommend when distracted during a presentation. It's fine to notice that your feet are sore, or you skipped a slide, but then return to the present moment with your audience.
The only times I suggest paying attention to the distraction are these:
1. The audience is uncomfortable. By all means see if you can get someone to fix the temperature, close the door, or have waiters stop walking through. The audience's comfort is important and key to their ability to pay attention to you.
2. A large number of audience members seem bored, sleepy or restless. You might want to take this opportunity to engage them and shift to a different activity or topic.
3. When your own discomfort or distracting behavior is interfering with your presentation. Have a drink of water if your throat is dry, or take off your jacket if you're hot. Awareness of movements like pacing or playing with your hair are worth noticing and addressing. If fixing the situation is quick, easy and not too distracting in itself, do it.
Distractions don't have to interfere with your presentation. Instead of perceiving them as problems, see them as part of the deal. Every presentation will have its distractions; they only become problems if you let them get to you.