Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Sirens, fire alarms and hippos – anticipate the potential for distractions in your business presentation. And don’t even try to compete!

I would like to seize your attention for a moment to discuss the topic of distractions in business presentations.

It follows my recent musings about the benefits of taking a moment at the beginning of a presentation to ‘own’ the space. I added: Don’t, whatever happens, get caught out by the arrival of the coffee. All too often a trolley arrives just as you are delivering your full-on, scene-setting, engagement-designed opening statement. You cannot hope to compete with the clinkety-clink of cups and saucers and the passing of the sugar bowl.
Arrival of the coffee is perhaps the most regular and common of all distractions; others include fire alarms and passing sirens. You can’t compete, so stop, making a light-hearted reference if you can think of one, then carry on again once the distraction has passed. That way, nothing you say will be missed and you reinforce the fact that the floor is yours at that moment and you are in control. Indeed, if the coffee arrives, stop speaking and make a point of pouring it yourself. Far from looking servile it will show that you are in charge - you own the space!   

I talk about distractions along these lines when I am coaching business people in Presentation Skills, but what I really hope for is that distractions will occur naturally during the day so that my points become self-apparent. I was delighted, therefore, when at PR client hired a rather inappropriate room – underneath a pub – for a day’s team coaching. As the day went on and delegates had to see past the mirror ball hanging over the table and contend with constant banging in the kitchen, one presenter even had to compete for attention with the arrival of the manager’s dog. I had no need to start talking about distractions as mundane as sirens and fire alarms!

Sometimes the distractions are less apparent because they exist in the minds of your audience. Soon after I started an awayday for a major car manufacturer, news came in about the possible closure of one of the company’s plants. It became very apparent that that was what they were all thinking about, rather than anything I was saying. So I called a halt. “Let’s break for an hour”, I said, “make your calls, see what needs to be done and then when we re-convene we can decide whether to continue or whether to let you all go”. They made their calls, clarified the position, realised there was nothing they could really do and everyone was back and ready to continue within 35 minutes.

So think carefully about what is likely to be on the minds of your audience as you plan a business presentation. If, for instance, you have picked up that they are anxious about catching a specific train, then make that the first and most important item on your agenda. Tell them you are aware they need to get away on time and you have arranged to finish 10 minutes early. Then you can even add a bit of theatre – ask them to come to the window and point to a taxi; “that car is already waiting to take you to the station”.  Now you have the best possible chance of retaining their attention – because you have eliminated the big distraction.

The most unusual distraction (apart form the arrival of that publican’s dog) that I have come across recently was when I was helping a friend who was giving a presentation in a pod on the London Eye. We discussed opening with energy and impact and how to cope with sight lines in an unusually shaped ‘venue’. The real challenge, however, was that as soon as the pod was up in the sky anything I said about eye contact was going to have little value – everybody’s gaze would inevitably be drawn to the view! How can you compete with that?

We decided to plan for it. “Start off”, I said, “with a bit of audience interaction by asking for help from someone who is good at identifying landmarks in South-East London. Say that you will be stopping your story when you get high in the sky so that everyone can admire the view and you will need their help at that point”.  With a specific moment promised for admiring the view, no one would worry about missing it, giving the speaker the the best chance of keeping the focus on herself as she spoke.

Finally, the most extreme distraction I have experienced was with one presenter who thought she could hear hippos! This was a very long way from sirens and fire alarms, but then so were we – because we happened to be on a game reserve in Swaziland. Amusing as it was, I didn’t really want the distraction to continue into Day Two, so I checked it out. While there were hippos nearby – and we got to see them on the final day – the noise turned out to be coming from the local equivalent of a cattle grid. 

The German translation of Nick Fitzherbert's book 
Presentation Magic was published on April 29.

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