How to Overcome Presentation Distractions


What does that word bring to your mind? A bustling restaurant? City traffic? Children on a playground?

While all of those things are definitely noisy in the traditional use of the word, we use the word noise a little differently in the communication field. When we are talking about communication, a good synonym for noise is distraction. It describes anything that gets in the way of a message. And anything that creates a barrier for communicating is a problem.

Speakers need to know all of the different forms that noise can take so that we can clear the pathway for effective presentations. After all, we need about 23 minutes to refocus after we are distracted. And even then, we come back to our previous thoughts with what researchers call “attention residue.”

How can speakers hope to overcome the distractions that plague listeners today? Some forms of noise we can deal with pretty simply. Other forms aren’t so easy to battle. Let’s explore the two main categories of distractions that can interfere with our presentations: external noise and internal noise.

External Noise

We call distractions that occur outside of the listener external noise. Another way to think of external noise is anything that is distracting to a larger portion of the communication community. Overcoming external noise is primarily the responsibility of the speaker.

  • Environment: This type of external noise can be anything from a phone going off during a presentation to the temperature of the room. What can you do? For large scale issues with environmental noise, sometimes you need to make an adjustment so your audience can both hear you and focus on your message. That might mean stopping the presentation long enough to address what is distracting.
  • Message: The message itself can become distracting if it is full of jargon. Audience members who are continually bombarded with terms they don’t know will eventually stop listening. In addition, if there is no clear organization, it might become too difficult for the audience members to try to make sense of the message. What can you do? Avoid or define terms the audience might not understand and craft a message with a clear organization.
  • Presentation: If the presenter speaks too fast or too quietly, or moves around the stage in a frenzied manner, the audience can become distracted. Poorly designed presentation media can also be a problem. Slides packed with information that is hard to understand or with images that aren’t relevant simply become noise. What can you do? Be aware of your nonverbal communication and delivery style. Enlist the help of graphic designers to help with presentation media.

Internal Noise

We call distractions that occur inside the listener internal noise. Of the two categories, this type of noise is more difficult for a speaker to discover and combat. Overcoming internal noise is primarily the responsibility of the listeners.

  • Personal reasons: Audience members don’t come to a presentation as completely blank slates, ready to fully listen. They may be tired or hungry. Or they might be working through conflict with a co-worker or spouse. They could have a report due that afternoon that they are worried about completing on time. Personal distractions can prove to be formidable barriers to being able to listen. What can you do? Work to make your presentation engaging through variety in content and media. Use repetition for the most important points so that audience members have more than one chance to catch key concepts.
  • Attitudes: Listeners might have strong feelings toward the speaker or the topic. In his book, The Anti-Education Era, James Paul Gee says we live in a day and age where we are communicating from “silos.” We are stocking up on opinions and followers that agree with us. He says, “In an Internet-connected world . . . each person can so readily customize information and communication so as to live within their own bubble and rarely confront different viewpoints or challenges to their ideologies.” So audience members who aren’t willing to engage with new and different ideas might stop listening altogether. What can you do? Understand the viewpoints that might differ from yours. Communicate with sensitivity when it comes to topics that listeners might disagree about.

The goal for presenters is to reduce the noise that plagues presentations as much as they can. Besides the specific tips listed above, presenters should simply be aware that communication doesn’t occur within a void. We can always work to address and minimize the noise that might be interfering with our presentations.

Need more tips on how to make your next presentation the best it can be? Get in touch with our team of experts at Ethos3 now.

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