Imagine: You're on the phone with a decision-maker you've been trying to reach forever. You've finally succeeded, and now you're making your pitch. . . . But something's wrong. That other person somehow seems, well, distant. They're grunting in reply to what you're saying. But is that a mouse-click you're hearing? And, yes, you can repeatedly hear the telltale sound of papers being turned over and shuffled.
You come to the dreaded conclusion you were trying to avoid: your decision-maker is multitasking.
As you hang up knowing your pitch didn't succeed, you wish you could get rid of every distraction that siphoned off the other person's attention and interest.
Why do you think it's any difference for your audiences when you speak?
From unproductive self-talk ("They don't look interested!") to worrying you'll forget your main points, to obsessing over the point you wanted to make a few minutes ago, too many of us do or think too much when speaking. And if there's ever a time when we need to unlearn that five-balls-in-the-air skill that's become ubiquitous to modern life, public speaking is it!
Focus, Focus, Focus . . . It's More Important Than Your Location
I work with clients to help them achieve remarkable focus as speakers. I understand that speaking appearances are routinely anxiety-provoking, often creating a high degree of self-consciousness. Such a response can interfere with and even destroy your devotion to your audience and message: the guiding lights of your performance. (To prepare a presentation with maximum focus and efficiency, download our cheat sheet, "How to Prepare a Speech in 15 Minutes.")
When you stand outside yourself and judge your performance, you're splitting your focus. Your awareness suddenly exists in two places at once: your own head (awareness directed inward), and your audience (awareness directed outward). Essentially, you're performing two tasks at the same time, one concerned with your listeners and the other concerned with yourself. You're multitasking.
The Magic of Doing One Thing at a Time
I thought of the dangers of multitasking for public speaking recently when I read Tony Schwartz's essay, "The Magic of Doing One Thing at a Time." Schwartz mostly discusses the hazards of technology that lure us into a multitasked universe. Josiane Feigon also made the point in her January 2012 blog entitled "Multitasking vs. Unitasking":
More devices and more tools increase the distraction level. And when you consider that 60% of workplace distractions come from email and social networking, and 14% of workers say they will tune out a meeting to tweet or update their status on a social network, this is serious.
Think about all those "labor-saving devices" that have proven, so far, to be anything but helpmates that save us time. Similar seductions exist for splitting our attention even without technology, however.
That's what I thought when I read Schwartz's piece, in which he makes some excellent points about resisting multitasking in order to increase our productivity, renew ourselves, and avoid "living in the gray zone."
Well, that's a good way to describe multitasking speakers! I thought. So here's a modest three-part assignment for speaking effectively for your important audiences and listeners:
- Pay attention to your breathing. Breathe diaphragmatically to develop a powerful, resonant voice that carries. Also learn to control your exhalation. The most important word or phrase usually comes at the end of a sentence, and you need to have sufficient air to punch it enough so that your listeners "get it." Focus on breathing productively and you'll stay in the moment, sure of getting your important points across.
- Notice but don't latch onto intrusive thoughts. Avoid two dangerous paths: engaging unwilling thoughts, or fighting them off. As human beings, we'll always be distracted by unwelcome thoughts when we need to concentrate on something else. Self-consciousness about ourselves as a speaker, for instance, may occur frequently. Learn to "notice" that you're having such a thought then let it continue on its way. Bring your attention back to your critical point and the audience's need to hear it.
- Discover mindfulness. A Buddhist term, "mindfulness" means being fully present in the moment. As speakers, we like to think that we are, but the truth is we often aren't. Only when you and your audience share the moment-by-moment unfolding of your narrative will true influence, even transformation, take place. The more you learn to be mindful in everyday situations, the more easily it will happen in high-stakes speaking situations. Read Thich Nhat Hanh's wonderful book The Miracle of Mindfulness to learn more.
Do these things as a speaker, and you will serve the task at hand powerfully and effectively. Your audiences demand nothing less, and few tactics will help you more in staying out of the gray zone and coming across in living color.
Watch my video, "How to Connect with Your Audience":
Takeaways from this blog:
- The multitasking you're so proud of will actually undermine your speeches and presentations.
- Controlled diaphragmatic breathing is your key to a resonant voice.
- It's not only technology that seduces us into multitasking.
- Learn mindfulness in everyday situations. You'll be a more disciplined and powerful speaker.