It has been a busy conference. The participants are close-knit professionals and love to share their ideas and enthusiasm. They are gathered together in a large meeting room to listen to a colleague who is not a professional speaker.
At the onset, instead of giving the presenter their full attention, audience members are busy sharing and chatting to the point of being rude. What’s the speaker to do? What should the event manager do?
I’ve seen several suggestions in various discussion groups to which I belong. Everything from 1) Stop the speech and ask everyone to pay attention, to 2) Quietly go about the room politely asking audience members to please stop talking and listen, to 3) Ignore it and hope it will go away!
I don’t recommend Nos. 2 and 3. No. 1 is an option. If the speaker suddenly gets quiet and just waits, people will notice and become silent as well.
I know one speaker who, when faced with an inattentive audience, simply stopped talking and raised her arm straight up in the air. This is an old “Girl Scout camp” trick that Beth Cooper-Zobott, director of Conference Services at Equity Residential, suggests. As a member of a noisy audience, she once just raised her arm and everyone followed suit and got quiet! She recommends that anyone who does speaking should put this idea in the “trainer/speaker tool belt” and use it as a part of a “canned” segue into the presentation by sharing a personal anecdote to warm up the audience.
The key here isn’t to chastise those in the audience who weren’t speaking, so as not to lump them in with those who were being discourteous, and to handle the situation smoothly no matter our level of frustration. For example, she says, a room is noisy/chatty. I begin, and chatting continues. I raise my hand straight in the air. Those in the room notice and grow silent. I thank the room and say conversationally, “Raising your hand to focus a group’s attention is something I learned when I was about 7, when I was a Brownie Scout and a member of Mrs. Houseman’s Troop 13 in Elgin, Ill. By a show of hands, who among us was in Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts? For some of us, that may have been our first experience as a part of a team of leaders. Today, we’re all leaders in our industry and the leadership issue we’ll be talking about today is ...”
If you have ever been a part of this situation and would like advice on how to resolve it, let’s back up and take a look at how this should have been handled from the planning stages. If you ever have to sit on a planning committee, provide education for a local or national association or a meeting, these are good tips to follow.
» Particularly when working with a nonprofessional speaker, event management should send the presenter a list of techniques to effectively engage an audience. A Google search will unveil a plethora of articles to prepare presenters to engage an audience. Always send the list to the presenter in an upbeat manner that lets him or her know that you are available to help make preparation easy.
» Plan with the speaker to have staff on hand with wireless microphones (if it is going to be a large audience) to start with an interactive session right out of the gate. If audience members realize that the speaker might call on them to answer a question, they will get immediately focused. This is particularly useful with a novice speaker and an audience that historically likes to socialize. It’s always good to have a few “plants” in the audience to get the ball rolling.
» The person introducing the speaker should make some general housekeeping announcements, such as “turn off your cell phones” and other information of note and then call the session to “order” indicating full attention.
» If you ever have to make a presentation and are like 99 percent of the population (who face it with dread), simply start your talk with a confession that you are nervous. Why? It will elicit compassion from the audience and help you feel more in control.
» Brian Monahan of Prestige AV & Creative Services suggests that participants receive a set of “Ground Rules” for attending meetings. They are:
» Respect the forum with decorum.
» Remove yourself from the room if you cannot honor the presenter/attendees with your attention.
» Be empowered to request others to honor the ground rules of the event.
» Ask yourself how you would want to be treated if given the same stage, and do that.
» Don’t attend if you cannot honor these simple rules.
Everyone I’ve spoken with about this topic agrees that it has always been an ongoing challenge. When you are faced with either planning, participating or serving as a presenter, keep these simple tricks in mind to keep things on track.
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Have to make a presentation? Remember these points.
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— John Daly is the founder and president of The Key Class, the go-to guide for job search success. Click here to learn more about The Key Class or get information on Thursday night classes in Santa Barbara. Connect with The Key Class on Facebook. Follow John Daly on Twitter: @johndalyjr. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.