If you’re reading this before you’ve looked at my previous post, When is an elephant not an elephant?, I suggest you take a couple of minutes to read/watch that one first – and perhaps the one before it as well.
The point I’m trying to make here is this: when something is distracting the attention of the vast majority of your audience away from you and what you’re saying, I recommend you make some reference to it. Once the elephant in the room has been acknowledged by the speaker, the audience generally finds it easier to settle and to bring their concentration back to the speech or presentation. However, as illustrated by the video in the last post, not every potential distraction is actually noticed by the audience. Before you interrupt your flow to diffuse the power of an elephant to divert your listeners’ attention, you need to be sure what you’re dealing with is an elephant and not a gorilla.
If you suddenly stop talking about your department’s monthly results, or why your village’s main road needs a speed limit, to comment on how stuffy it is in here or the fact that it’s started snowing, your momentum and impact will be lost. People may well not have noticed these things before you pointed them out and you’ve created a distraction where none existed. It will almost certainly be harder for you to carry on with your talk too, both because attention has been dissipated and because the subliminal message is: if you, the speaker, are that easily distracted, what you’re saying must be quite dull. Even if you really do find your content uninspiring, it’s your job to make it interesting for the audience – and interrupting yourself for no good reason does nothing to help.
For an elephant to be truly an elephant, it needs to be obviously drawing the attention of most of your audience. If a couple of people are sharing a private joke, if one person out of a large crowd discreetly leaves the room, you really don’t need to acknowledge this. Apart from the danger of embarrassing someone, you risk making it into a bigger deal than it is.
And remember, the idea of commenting on the distraction is to diffuse it, not to focus people on it. If there’s a chance they might not have noticed, don’t draw attention to it. Particularly if you’re nervous, it can be easy to assume the audience is thinking about anything and everything else except you, but crying elephant only makes this worry self-fulfilling.