It's one of the worst case scenarios you can experience as a public speaker: you’re delivering a speech and then something unexpected happens that distracts the entire audience.
For new speakers, this experience has the potential to completely derail a speech, because no matter how much you practice, you can’t completely prepare for this type of situation.
This happened to me a few years ago at a Toastmasters meeting. The airwall between our Toastmasters meeting room and the adjoining room was not closing properly, and in the middle of my speech those in the adjacent room began engaging in a very loud icebreaker activity. As this was happening, my audience kept glancing toward the other room and whispering with each other as they tried to figure out what was going on. I could tell I had lost their attention, and knowing that led me to lose track of where I was in my speech.
Thankfully, one of my respected colleagues shared valuable wisdom during his evaluation of my speech later that meeting. He said, “As a speaker, you have two options when a noticeable distraction happens: ignore it, or acknowledge it.”
He explained that If the distraction isn’t something too significant (such as a side conversation or someone spills a glass of water) then the best option is likely to continue with your speech as if nothing happened at all. If this is the path you choose, you’ll want to ensure your vocal tone is loud enough to keep the audience’s attention. Distractions often cause side chatter, and if you’re going to continue with your speech, you’ll want to adjust your volume to maintain the crowd’s focus.
If the distraction is something more significant, he explained, then it would be odd not to acknowledge it. Polished speakers will use these incidents as an opportunity to call out the distraction in a humourous way.
For example, if the power cut out in the middle if your speech momentarily, it would be strange to carry on as if nothing at all had happened. Instead, you can use this as an opportunity to say something funny such as, “Wow... there are more subtle ways you could’ve let me know I should be wrapping up my speech than turning the lights out on me.”
Thankfully, mid-speech distractions are not a common occurrence and you may never have to deal with this type of situation. But, if you ever have this experience, always remember you have two options as a speaker: ignore it or acknowledge it.
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This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.