How to keep audience attention when people are multitasking

Texting A reader asked me this question about audience attention:

Some of us who are 45+ are finding that younger people text and use computers during presentations to the point of rudeness. This happens even when others in the presentation give great evaluations.  We think we’ll be seen as “old farts” if we ask them to disengage.  How do we bridge this generation gap?

What’s the assumption about audience attention?

The assumption is that people paying attention will be looking at you, the speaker. If they’re not looking at you, or they appear to be doing something else, then they’re not paying attention. But this assumption is not supported by evidence.

How do people pay attention?

Sitting passively listening to someone talking is unnatural. It requires concentration. Many people use secondary tasks to help them stay engaged and focused. At university the only way I could stop my brain going off on a journey of its own during boring lectures, was to discipline myself to take notes.

In a recent experiment, doodlers were able to recall 29% more details from a phone conversation than non-doodlers:

[The] theory is that by using up slightly more mental resources, doodling helps prevent the mind from wandering off the boring primary task into daydream land. This study is part of an emerging recognition in psychology that secondary tasks aren’t always a distraction from primary tasks, but can sometimes actually be beneficial.

The secondary tasks we use to stay focused are becoming more high-tech. People can now take notes on their phones and laptops, or they may have a game on their cellphone which is equivalent to doodling.

So the first point is that people who appear to be fully-engaged with their cellphones and laptops may still be paying attention to you.

But are people who are texting paying attention?

Er no, they’re probably not. But when you’re the speaker you don’t know whether the person is texting, surfing, playing solitaire or taking high-quality notes of your presentation. Therefore don’t make an assumption that they’re not paying attention.

Is it rude?

Rude is in the mind of the beholder. Rude to you, not rude to them. To label a behavior as rude is to make a negative judgement about it, and that judgement will seep through in the way that you come across.

Your audience are adults. If their behavior is not distracting or annoying other people in the audience it’s up to them whether they pay attention or not, and how they pay attention.

So what can you do?

There’s no need to do anything. But, if you think you’ll do a better job if people are looking at you, here are two approaches you could take:

1. Open your presentation and start to establish rapport with your audience, and then say:

“I notice many of you are using your phones and laptops. I’m absolutely fine with that. But I also know that I can do a better job if you are engaging with me and looking at me. So when you’re not using your phones and laptops I’d love it if you can look at me.”

2. Scott Berkun in his book Confessions of a Public Speaker describes an approach he’s taken. He says to his audience:

“Here’s a deal. I’d like you to give me your undivided attention for five minutes. If after five minutes you’re bored, you think I’m an idiot, or you’d rather browse the web than listen, you’re free to do so. In fact, I won’t mind if you get up and leave after five minutes. But for the first 300 seconds, please give me your undivided attention.” Most people close their laptops.

The bottom-line

If you want their attention, be more interesting than their cellphones.

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  1. Another trick I’ve been using is to make sure one of my first slides is just my twitter handle (@berkun) and when I show it I ask who in the room is on twitter, or facebook, or liveblogs. When I see their hands I now know who in the room is probably writing about me while I talk, and not ignoring me.

  2. Hi Scott

    Thanks for dropping by and adding another great tip.


  3. I’m in that demographic (speaker > 45), and my opinion is, they can choose to be anywhere at this time, and they’ve chosen to be with me. Whether they are surfing the web, texting, or tweeting (or catching up with email, working, or finishing their own presentation), they’re sitting in my session to do it.

    I do ask if anyone is tweeting, but only to see if there will be a backchannel during my presentation.

    • Hi Char

      I like your mental approach. The thoughts we have when we’re presenting have an influence on how you come across, so to say to yourself “They’ve chosen to be here” is going to be much more useful than “They’re so rude”.


  4. I have to agree with Scott Berkun’s comment about twitter, and his approach sounds like it would be effective with most audiences. speakers who notices their audience members’ thumbs flying, remember that ‘live tweeting’ from an event is becoming more and more common and accepted. While it can take some getting used to, if attendees are live tweeting during your presentation, it may be a sign that people find your presentation compelling and conversation-worthy!

    • Hi Kim – totally agree, Olivia

  5. Time is an important factor. Get to the main points fast and sit down. No one ever criticized a speaker for speaking for less time than that which is allotted. If they are interested, they will keep you with the Q & A.

    • Hi Joel

      I do agree with you that you shouldn’t go over time or be long-winded. Not sure whether you really intended it that way, but your comment sounds like your presentation should be as short as possible. On the assumption that you have the ability to deliver value to your audience, you could be reducing that value if your presentation is too short!


  6. All great suggestions and comments. I guess as a member of the Gen X club I’ve been able to straddle the fence more comfortably than some others with the changes in technology and social norms. I’m in the camp of we’re all adults and as long as it’s not disrupting the others, use whatever gadgets you want for notetaking, avoidance, whatever. I know I’m more interesting. ;)

    For me it depends on the forum, topic and speaker whether I will break out the gadgets. The smaller the setting, for instance, the more likely I am to go with pen and paper if I need to jot something down. I have also approached a presenter ahead of time to let them know I am taking digital notes, blogging, tweeting, etc.

    The bottom line is respect. The presenter hopefully respects my time and effort to attend and I’ll respect the presenter and fellow participants’ needs to have the best experience possible.

    • … and beautifully said. Thank you, Valary, for adding your perspective.


  7. This one is not for every situation, but another gentle but firm reminder is to say “Please interrupt and let me know if I’m not presenting something clearly, because I know you all are accountable for the information we’re going to cover.”

  8. I have had an unpleasant experience with celphones, blackberries, etc. These units have caused extremely audible interference through the sound systems of events that I have teched. It really ruins it for everyone.

  9. This reminds me of a story about one of the first female engineering students at my undergraduate university. She went to a Chemical Engineering class with her knitting, which made the professor nervous…but “he soon learned that I could knit and pay attention.”

    She graduated top of her class. This was in the 50s.

    I liken my web surfing during a presentation to modern-day knitting :) but try to keep it to looking up confusing phrases or technical terms. If the presenter gets really boring, I get impatient and start taking notes on what he/she could improve, just to keep me awake! Either way, I am behind my screen the entire time, but hopefully not in a distracting matter.

    This reminds me of the generational clash described here:

    • Hi Carolyn
      Knitting is a great example of a past generation’s secondary activity! Thanks for the link to danah boyd’s rant too.

  10. This is excellent. I have a friend who is an emcee, and I forwarded this to him. Your last points about what to say to set the expectation can be golden for him.


    • Great! Delighted it’s going to be useful. Olivia

  11. I agree with the Twitter approach that Scott and Kim mentioned. I usually take it a step further: I display my Twitter handle (@LawyerKM), ask who uses Twitter, and then say, “Good to see so many Twitter users, now I won’t be offended if people are using their devices — I’ll just assume that you’re Tweeting my presentation.” Of course, I say this in a light-hearted, jocular way, but it does two things: (1) makes people conscious of “rude” device usage (e.g., emailing or texting or tweeting unrelated to my presentation), and (2) encourages “good” device usage (e.g., tweeting / blogging about my presentation.

    • That’s a great way of putting it, thanks Patrick.

  12. Was asked to do a presentation on effective meetings. Started by dividing the group in two, giving them each a secret task — one to model the best and the other the worst meeting ever. They went off to plan for 5 minutes, then came back. Only rule was no cursing. I’ve never seen such enthusiasm as they did their respective skits! They howled with laughter at the best and absolute worst behavior. After this the group was completely hooked, and not one person dared even look at their computers, and ALL phones were turned off.

    • Hi Jonathan

      That sounds like a great way to start the session. Thanks for sharing it with us.


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