How Do You Win Back a Distracted Audience?

bored at meetingsWe’ve all been there. You’re giving a speech or taking Q&A –BUT peers are typing on their laptops or texting on their phones. Senior leaders whisper among themselves. Sometimes it’s worse: the audience emotionally blocks you. How do you handle it? As a speechwriter-speech coach, may I offer 10 hard won tips.

When an audience is distracted, the trick is to interrupt their automatic guessing machineThey think they know what you will say—so they think they can listen with half an ear. Take charge. Disrupt their automatic guessing machines.

  1. Take a surprise poll. Ask for a show of hands –or– have them use their smartphones with a short poll you’ve pre-set up on or similar easy polling sites.
  2. Read the room –out loud. Call out the elephant in the room. Remember pushback usually has one of four reasons: No time. No money. No trust. No interest. Trust your gut and bravely call it out, with warm, gentle humor.
  3. Use candor/humor to remind them of the big picture. “Eyes on the prize, people.”
  4. Call on an ally. Pre-arrange to have an expert in the audience, or better yet, a leader standing by to do a cameo. That’ll whipcrack a distracted audience back into you orbit.
  5. Break news. Give breaking news. Better yet, give news as a traded currency. Offer something they want (more time, budget, insider intell, a coveted role, etc.) in exchange for their undivided attention—or in some cases, a seat at this table.
  6. Reveal a killer prop. Neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor (TED talk) is famous for having an assistant in the wings hand her a real brain, which she held in her hand for a minute while telling a story. At Genentech, I once dropped the 1400 page HealthCare Reform bill on the table with a marvelous thundering thud. Have one killer prop up your sleeve.
  7. Use media: Show video or audio clip. Do a live demo. Stream LIVE from the Internet.
  8. White Board: Walk fast to other side of room and suddenly write something provocative on white board.
  9. Tell a killer anecdote, tailored to this audience. Always have two anecdotes in your back pocket.
  10. Shame them but let them save face. If someone is talking, walk over and stand inappropriately next to them, but do NOT –and this is key—do not acknowledge them as you talk. Pretty soon they will stop. Every time.

Want to practice thinking on your feet? Request information about our:

  • Popular COOL UNDER FIRE workshops—customized for your company. Workshops are a lively mix of advanced Presentation Skills techniques—PLUS fun, Improv games to help you handle whatever life throws at you.
  • Private Speechwriting and Speech Coaching sessions

Contact: Marianne Fleischer,

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