Don’t ignore the elephant in the room. This is good advice in public speaking: if something is calling the audience’s attention and distracting them from what you’re saying, it’s much better to acknowledge it than to pretend it’s not there.
My last speech day at school, a bird got into the hall and was desperately flapping around, trying to find a way out. This was somewhat distracting for the audience, as you can imagine, but it wouldn’t have been so bad if the speakers had made some small comment – or even (too much to ask) a joke – to show they knew what was going on.
The elephant in the room doesn’t have to be an actual creature, of course. It can be noise, an intermittent electricity supply, a continuous strong smell (either good or bad) wafting in. Whatever it is, if it’s taking attention away from you, it’s almost certainly a good idea to remark on it.
A brief detour from your prepared speech may seem a risk but it will pay dividends, if only by showing you have noticed the elephant too, that you are a human being and not an automaton.
As I’ve said on the website (see Delivering Your Speech or Presentation):
When there’s an external distraction, many people feel you should ignore it and soldier on regardless. My own view is, it’s better to be natural. If it’s something that can be dealt with quickly, I always stop for a second and ask someone to sort it out. For example, if a loud conversation starts up outside your meeting room, someone can ask the culprits to be quiet. If it’s something bigger, such as a pneumatic drill outside the window, I always mention it, to diffuse it, and then carry on (more loudly). Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away and I find acknowledging a distraction can help the audience forget about it.
However, as we shall see in the next post, not every potential distraction is an elephant. Before you go drawing attention to everything else your audience might be thinking about but you, take a second to consider…
When is an elephant not an elephant?