How to Engage with Multi-Tasking Audiences


Let’s face it: audiences at events are more distracted than ever before. While you try to keep them engaged with what’s happening onstage, they’re texting, checking the news, responding to email, and getting their work done. And the proliferation of mobile devices doesn’t help. As of 2015, there are 1.8 billion mobile users, with mobile phones and tablets accounting for more than a third of all Web traffic worldwide. In any work setting, conference or other professional event, the vast majority of the people attending will have at least one mobile device on them at all times. And it’s just too easy for event attendees to check their devices while they should be watching an event. Instead of avoiding the issue, event planners should learn how to engage with multi-tasking audiences to make the most of their presentations in a mobile-rich world. Here are some ways:

Tell a Story

There is nothing that engages an audience quite like a good story. By nature, the human mind tends to wander. Relaying a captivating story will distract your audience from their mobile devices. When a story is told well, people can imagine themselves in that scenario or relate to it in a meaningful way that stay with them long after the tale is wrapped up. You don’t have to have stellar literary or speaking skills to tell a great story. Equipped with a basic understanding of your audience, the essential elements of a story’s formula, and a little practice, you’ll have no trouble kicking off each presentation with a killer story that encourages your audience to put down their mobile devices at least for a moment.

Acknowledge the Mobile Moment

One interesting approach to deal with a distracted audience is to earn their attention by acknowledging that you understand them. You certainly don’t want to create drama by singling out their habits or snatching their mobile phones from their hands. Instead, try reverse psychology. Do an informal survey from the stage. Ask, “How many of you multi-task on your phones during presentations?” and, to show empathy, raise your own hand. Then say, “For those of you who did not raise your hands, you have my permission to multi-task while I’m talking. I’ll try to earn your attention during my talk, but I understand you need to take care of business, too.” Doing so will likely have the opposite effect by drawing them into your discussion. Once they have permission to check their phones, they’ll feel less likely to do so.

As a variation of acknowledging the mobile moment: if you are speaking at an event in which attendees are encouraged to share real-time social media content such as tweets and photos during a presentation, you might as well own the behavior. Publish the event’s Twitter hashtag on your presentation (if the event has one) along with your Twitter handle (assuming you have one) so that you can track reactions to your talk and collect a few Twitter followers, too.

Implement Phone-Free Zones Where Appropriate

Consider implementing a mobile-free zone during your presentation, but only if you are presenting to a small audience, and an expectation has been set ahead of time that a high level of interaction is expected.

It’s important to explain why you are implementing a mobile-free zone to guard against a hostile reaction occurring. Explaining that you want people to remain focused on the important content at hand will help them understand why you’re taking this action. You may even want to take it one step further and share a little bit about multi-tasking brain science. Allowing people to check their phones and tablets during periodic breaks from a longer presentation will help them feel connected while allowing them to engage more fully as a member of the audience.

There is no single approach to engage multi-tasking audiences that works for every presenter. Experiment with different tactics until you establish a routine that suits your presentation style and consistently pleases audiences. The most important approach to take, though, is this: accept the reality that your audience will include multi-taskers. You can manage them but not eradicate the action. Audience behavior has changed forever. We are not going back to the days when you have the rapt attention of your audience. What approaches do you take to manage multi-tasking audiences?

We Love Live. For a complimentary 30-minute consultation on how to build your brand and inspire an audience through events and communications, please contact Brian Duffy by calling 630.427.4235 or by emailing

Image source: Wilfred Iven,


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