December 18, 2012

Dealing with a distressed audience

Sometimes we have to give a presentation under less than optimal circumstances. I'm not talking about those times when you're having a bad day or haven't gotten enough sleep, although those are also less than optimal and we've all experienced it! On those occasions, we keep our discomfort to ourselves and suck it up.

I'm talking about those times when your audience is in distress or distracted because of something that's happened (or is going to happen) at their workplace, in the community, or in the world.

Sometimes it's a happy and exciting event, like when the space shuttle flew overhead at the exact time I was supposed to begin a workshop with a recent group. Everyone wanted to be outside for this historic occasion, the last nationwide tour of the space shuttle on the back of a 747. Unfortunately, the timing was off, and people spent the first 15 minutes of our training time going back and forth to see if it was coming. Distracting but manageable.

Last week, there was a different kind of incident, a school shooting that took many lives, a national tragedy.

I still had to give my training. People still had to attend my training. What could I do in the face of such an event, when I knew people were upset, angry, shocked and saddened (as was I)? Watch my short video below for how I chose to deal with it.

This was an appropriate exercise and time frame for the group and for our proximity and connection to the event. However, if there had been something happening within the organization where my audience was directly affected, like layoffs or cutbacks, or a major distressing incident, I would have taken a little more time and talked a little more about what was happening, and my focusing exercise might have been a little more involved.

The important thing is to acknowledge that something is happening. Let your audience know that you're in the loop, you're not out of touch, and you understand their mental state - to some degree. Give them the opportunity to clear out the current distraction and be present and in the moment with you. Your presentation will go much more smoothly and they'll learn and retain more if you've dealt with the so-called "elephant in the room."

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