Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Reader question: What to do when the audience buzz distracts you

Recently, I asked readers to share an answer to "What are you looking for here about public speaking?" The post brought this question from reader Vivian Leber, who's focused on her audience--and its distracting qualities:
What do you suggest doing when there are a few audience members chattering away and making a distracting buzz? Do you pause? That might provide an opening for additional chatterers to start up. Comment on it? Ignore it?
Any time you're in a situation that requires you to step out of your presentation and confront an audience member, you risk derailing your planned mission, something I sense Vivian understands. At the same time, when you "have the floor" as the speaker, you're in control of the room and other audience members will expect you to manage the room and the audience to ensure that all can hear and enjoy your remarks. While your response will need to take many factors into account, try one of these subtle ways to bring the buzzing audience members back to attention:

  • Wait for silence.  Rather than shush the audience or ask for silence by yelling over the din, just wait quietly. This is especially effective at the start of a presentation, but you might also pause during a speech if the buzzing is especially distracting, and smile, looking at the chatterers until they realize they are the only people speaking. The rest of the audience will get what you're doing and wait with you, while coming to attention.
  • Move toward the noise.  One of many good reasons to stay mobile during a presentation is your ability to move into and out of the audience. You can move toward and stand directly in front of buzzing audience members while continuing your presentation, making eye contact with them until they  turn quiet--they'll realize that you've brought the spotlight directly to them quickly.
  • Have a funny line on hand that matches your remarks.  Take the time to come up with a quick one-liner or aside that will let the entire audience know that you can hear the whisperers, and get them to be quiet at the same time. "I know this topic is controversial, but there's no need to whisper about it--I hope you all will be vocal when it's time for questions," or "People are really talking about this argument. People are even talking about it here and now," followed by a wait for a laugh, are two ways to handle it verbally.

What are you looking for here on public speaking and presenting? Share your question in the comments.

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