|"Can I call you back Chief? I'm at a KAOS speaker's convention."|
Speaker distractions go beyond ringtones, of course. People walking in or out, dishes crashing in the background, sirens from passing fire engines - none of these are uncommon. I've also heard of fire drills or evacuations mid-speech, electrical outages, and sprinklers going off!
7 Ways to Deal with Distractions
A. Preempt. Have the emcee or introducer recommend the audience turn phones off, or at least to silent, before they bring you up. Have staff monitor the doors, and quietly let people in and out, and aid in finding them seats. Talk to the wait staff supervisor about when to serve dinner, drinks, etc. Make sure the temperature in the room isn't too hot or cold. Whatever you can take care of before it happens, take care of so your audience never has to worry about it.
B. Ignore. A singular, short distraction from an audience member usually takes care of itself. Peer pressure gets them to turn off the offending device, or the late-arriving listener eventually sits down. If you ignore it, most of your audience will too. The bigger the audience, the more effective this approach becomes.
C. Spatial Closure. In a smaller room, when you aren't on stage, you're able to walk toward a person who's holding their own conversation, and bring more attention to them (and the people they are talking too, who are often more concerned than the primary transgressor), and provoke them to pay more attention to you. If it's a training session, its a great time to toss them a question, unless they are the CEO of the company. Know your audience, as always, but let them know who's leading the discussion.
If you are on a stage - try eye contact instead. Move toward that person's direction and look right at them as you speak. They'll get the message - and if they don't, those around them likely will.
D. Ad-lib Humor. A common response to a phone ringing in the audience is "Please, hold all my calls" or "Tell them to hold the anchovies!" There are plenty of other options when plates crash, music starts playing, or shouting in the hallways invades your time with the audience. If you're at a moment in your speech where some levity won't take your audience offtrack, and you are confident with quick-witted responses, go for it. One quick call-out is enough to shame most of your audience into switching their phones to vibrate.
E. Planned Humor. Tom Antion lists several responses you can commit to memory for specific events in this free chapter of his book 'Wake 'em Up Business Presentations'. He also includes a brief exercise to help you create some lines of your own. Again, know the audience before firing off a one-liner, planned or not.
F. Control. As the speaker, you are leading the meeting. If a fire alarm goes off, the lights go out, or someone falls ill, the audience will first look to YOU for what to do. Calm the audience down and pass the microphone to a conference or meeting official. If it's your event, either deal with it personally, or have enough staff on hand to attend to the problem, and refocus your audience. Whatever is happening, its up to you to cue the audience on their next emotional and physical move.
But when it becomes repetitive even after being addressed, the audience will switch allegiances. Ask the offending party directly to ask questions later, or take the conversations outside, or, in the case of a relentless heckler, to outright leave. Have staff on hand to make sure it happens if the pressure from the audience and you still isn't enough to quiet these people down. You are responsible for the audience getting their time & money's worth - don't let a persistent distraction remain if at all possible.
Distractions are a fact of life as a speaker. It's your job not to let them interfere with what you have to say, with your confidence on stage, and with your audience's overall experience. Be prepared, be on your toes, be calm - and you will Speak & Deliver. Even if you have to finish in the parking lot as the building burns in the background...