Dont Blame the Audience for Not Listening

I just read an article on LinkedIn in which the author blamed the audience for their poor etiquette in talking or checking their devices during a speech, and I could not disagree more. Poor etiquette it may be, but it is also honest feedback and therefore an indispensable gift to the speaker.

That’s why I don’t like it when the person introducing me at a training event or speech asks the audience members to close their laptops and give me their undivided attention. Of course they mean well, because it can be disconcerting to a speaker when people aren’t paying attention or –even worse—are typing emails while you’re talking.

But look at what happens when they’re not explicitly asked to put away their distractors. As the class begins, maybe a bare majority of the participants close their laptops and sit up and face you. You begin with a strong opening, a few laptop lids come down; you give them the big SO WHAT for what they’re about to hear, a few more lids (laptops, not eyes) come down; maybe you challenge them or ask a tough question, move around the room a bit, use their names to engage them personally, and within minutes all eyes are industriously on you. A little later, you might notice fingers starting to twitch and eyes starting to glance at their phones, you know it’s time for a change of pace or maybe even a break.

But you only know all this because you are paying attention to their unintentional honest feedback. Their feedback allows you to modify and fine-tune and control the message to make sure you’re delivering the value they expect.

Don’t blame your audience for not paying attention. It’s like blaming your body for running a fever when it’s just a symptom of a real malady: you and/or your message is not compelling enough to make them want to close the laptop and sit up and listen for all they’re worth. If they’re not listening, they’re not buying, and they’re not buying because they don’t get the value. It’s your job to get them to see it.

However, it’s also possible to try too hard to own the entire audience. Audiences can be very diverse, and some people who are required to be there may not actually get value from what you’re saying. Or maybe someone really has a fire to put out somewhere and has to attend to it. If you work too hard to draw them in, you run the risk of losing the rest of the audience. Unless they’re distracting others, ignore them and focus on those who really care.

Blaming your audience for not listening is like blaming a customer for not buying. It may make you feel good, but it doesn’t help you improve your pitch or your product.

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