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iBattle: how to win your audience’s attention in a room full of shiny, buzzing adversaries

Whether you’re a university lecturer, managing a team meeting, or pitching to investors, you’re almost guaranteed to be fighting your audience’s phones for their attention. If you’ve been there, you will certainly agree that this can be an incredibly frustrating experience. You’ve worked hard, prepared for this moment, and would probably do anything to get the people sitting in front of you to just look up and focus on you.

So what do you do when you’re standing up in front of a group of people and phones start to come out? Depending on the situation and your relationship to the audience, you might be able to explicitly ask everyone to keep their phones away (best to preempt and ask before you start speaking). Often times - especially if you have the power - this is enough to get most of the phones out of sight. And if you have the power to ask at the beginning of the meeting, you should feel confident to remind people later on if the phones start creeping back out.

If you’re not in a situation to make such a request - let’s say you’ve called the meeting to ask the other side for something - the phones may be important clues and deciphering the meaning requires you to split your attention while continuing your presentation. First of all, were the phones out on the table before you started? If so, was the person looking bored before touching the phone, or did it buzz and get her attention? While the person is looking at the phone, does she look like she’s scrolling or concentrating on something specific? These will be indications for you whether you’ve lost her attention or something else pulled it away.

If you’ve lost her attention, regroup quickly. Are you giving a focused and relevant presentation? (I know, it can be tough to evaluate whether you’re giving a focused presentation while you’re thinking about something else, but that’s the way it goes.) Is there something you can do to ask a question or engage with your audience around the topic at hand? Bringing the audience into the conversation will almost always get their pesky distractions back where they belong.

If something pulled her attention toward the phone, like a call or a text, did the person acknowledge you before responding? If so, she’s probably with you and it might even be appropriate to pause and let her answer before continuing. If she didn’t acknowledge you and just answered, see above paragraph. You’ve probably lost her a bit and need to draw her back in.

Depending on the audience, it may be wise to go with the flow and understand that the phones are here to stay. Especially in larger groups, if you’re looking to make your presentation interactive, you can use Kahoot or another program to include audience mobile interaction; have a poll, a quiz, or ask people to Tweet in responses or questions for the panelists. That way they’re at least with you while they’re also someplace else.

My last piece of advice is to be the change you want to see in the world. The next time you’re sitting and listening to someone else speak, be an example to those around you and resist the urge to pull out your phone and check in on what’s going on outside the room. We all know the feeling when the person next to us pulls out their phone and it instinctively makes us want to do the same. So recognize that moment and don’t let your hand wander to your pocket or bag.

Whether you’re in an important one-on-one meeting, leading a conversation with people with whom you work closely, or speaking to a room full of people, don’t forget that you’re fighting the good fight. In some situations, you’ll have the authority to demand the phones go away, in others you’ll need to fight the phones head-on by being more interesting. Sometimes it's best to go with the flow, even with a drop of humor mixed in.

Leave your thoughts below - have you dealt with this kind of situation? What’s worked best for you and what advice do you have for others?


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