Saturday 11th January, 2014

Dealing with Distraction

My late father and I shared a love of snooker.

He was a terrific player and won many trophies in his local league. I just like watching.

In 1987, an exciting young Scottish player called Stephen ‘The Wonder Bairn’ Hendry caused a revolution in what had become a middle-aged man’s game.

Absolute Focus

17-year-old Hendry was the unsmiling underdog who perfected his skill by watching hours and hours of his opponents’ matches on video so that when match day came he knew exactly what he needed to do to win.

Hendry approached his sport with the mindset to be the best in the world (he won the World Championship seven times and was ranked #1 in the world eight years in a row) and when the quality of his game began to wane he retired from professional snooker, aged just 42.

The British press likes to have a dig at dour but successful Scottish sportsmen (such as Hendry and more recently Andy Murray), but all seem to have one vital quality in common: they play to win and when they step into their chosen arena nothing will distract them from their absolute focus on the job at hand.

Which is just as well, because both tennis and especially snooker attract audiences who fiddle and fidget.


Fidgets and Fiddlers

This week I had the huge pleasure of watching 80s snooker greats Stephen Hendry, Steve Davis, Jimmy White, John Virgo and Dennis Taylor play an exhibition match in my hometown Watford.

Sitting quite near the back of the auditorium (which is where you want to be when you’re watching snooker, incidentally), I had a good view of the rest of the audience.

What a bunch of fidgets!

It wasn’t just that they could neither keep still nor keep quiet. They were in constant procession to and from the toilets. Doors banged, people shouted in the corridors (audible to everyone inside the arena), plastic cups were kicked over and trodden on, someone near me farted loudly (albeit accidentally) and halfway through one frame (that’s the name for a ’round’ in snooker) one of the light bulbs above the table exploded.

Yet none of these noisy distractions seemed to bother the players who remained calmly and stoically focussed on the matter at hand.

Snooker is one of the few spectator sports that requires the audience to be quiet during play and in this regard has a lot in common with public speaking.

I’ve yet to be interrupted by a fart during a presentation (though I’m sure the day will come) or an exploding lightbulb, but I have experienced many similar distractions, from someone drilling on the floor above the conference room to a late-arriving student who tripped over the power cable that was attached to my lapel microphone with embarrassing consequences for both of us.


How to Deal with Distractions

There will always be unexpected sounds and incidents during our presentations that we can neither avoid nor control.

So what can we do to maintain that precious rapport?

1. Make light of it

If the distraction is caused by an inanimate object, smile, let the moment pass and continue. That’s it. Don’t break from your flow if you can possibly help it. You’ve worked hard to reach the current energy level so don’t let it drop. If you can feel energy starting to drop bring focus back to you as quickly, assertively yet compassionately as possible. No need to feel cross or embarrassed. The world is noisy and everyone is used to that.

2. Ignore it

If the distraction is caused by a bodily function (and I’ve been in meetings where colleagues have accidently sneezed, coughed, burped and farted, albeit not simultaneously) carry on regardless if you can.

Unfortunately, having been raised on a diet of Carry On films I’m the sort of person who finds this sort of interruption hilarious.

If I start giggling, that’s it. There is no end to it.

If I find myself in this situation today, I use a mindfulness technique to not ‘follow’ the humorous thought but refocus my attention on the present (that’s right, mindfulness, that form of meditation that is a great way to dismiss negative self-talk is also perfect for dismissing the urge to laugh when someone in the audience farts. Who knew?).

(Alas, aptly-named UK snooker professional Judd Trump has to tolerate more than his fair share of audible interruptions.)

3. Stop it

There are some disruptions that won’t go away. Snoring is one of these. On many occasions I’ve addressed audiences of people with long-term conditions and sight loss who are prone to sudden sleep accompanied by loud snores. It’s both embarrassing and distracting as even though you know the snoring is not a judgement on how interesting you are, it still feels that way.

There is no snoring allowed on my watch. If someone snores they’re not only distracting me, they’re distracting those around them. So what do I do in this situation? Simple. I ask someone sitting near the person to give them a gentle prod. In all the times I’ve done this it’s never been a problem (works in the cinema too).

If the prolonged noise is due to something technical in the room or building or people outside the room, then I ask the person I’ve appointed as my helper before my talk began to sort it out for me with minimum fuss.

Yes, the person I’ve appointed as my helper.

Always appoint someone to be your assistant while you’re speaking so if something goes wrong someone other than you can sort it out with minimum fuss.

4. Prevent it

We’re all sick of hearing those requests to turn your phone to silent, yet every time I hear a presentation at least one mobile phone makes a noise and breaks the moment. I have a theory that a large proportion of mobile phone owners don’t actually know how to turn their phones to silent (perhaps there needs to be a public awareness campaign sponsored by the mobile phone companies to address this). I, who will have no truck with avoidable disturbance, make it very clear from the outset that if anyone’s mobile makes a sound during my presentation there will be consequences (for example, ‘I will come over there and sit on you’. Believe me, as a deterrent it works).

5. Work with it

If your audience are prone to fidgeting, if they are uncomfortable, tired or bored, do whatever you can to alleviate their discomfort the moment you notice it. Switch things up with a change of tone. Use a combination of humour and pathos to keep people interested. Be animated and engaging. Disruptive audiences are rarely ‘being naughty’. They are usually uncomfortable or stressed, so think what you can do there and then to make them feel a bit more comfortable so that they can focus on your message and not the pins and needles in their leg.

While I’m sure this article has raised a few knowing smiles, there is a serious message behind it. Your audience deserves to hear your presentation. It is your responsibility to ensure that distractions are kept to a minimum.

There will always be unwanted sounds and movement in an audience: calls of nature, clumsiness or just an inability to sit still for more than a few minutes. This is the great joy of working with people: you never really know how they’re going to behave! But above all, understand that it is your responsibility to provide an atmosphere in which they feel most comfortable. Make the effort and they will reward you with warmth, compliance and attention.



Categories: Attention, How to, Think differently

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