“When I’m leading a meeting, I find that people spend a lot of time typing emails. What is your strategy for dealing with the iPhone problem?”

“When I’m leading a conference call, I know that there are people listening in who aren’t paying attention. They’re surfing the internet, writing memos, making their own phone calls. Are there tricks for making people pay closer attention?”

“People look at their laptop and iPads during my presentations. Is there anything I can do about this?”

A lot of people ask me how to keep their listeners from getting distracted by today’s digital technology. And they never like my answer. But here it is.


It’s not the listener’s fault that your meeting feels like a waste of time.

Many communicators blame iPhones and laptops for their audiences’ failure to pay attention. It’s as if some people think that the smartphone has created a form of attention deficit disorder that has made it more difficult to connect with listeners.

Many training sessions now begin with the scolding plea, “Please turn off your cell phones and pagers.” I read an article in the New York Times about a law professor that banned laptops during his lectures because he wanted to foster more “active intellectual experience.”

Yeah right Professor. The laptops are the reason that your law students aren’t paying attention to your soul-suckingly dull lectures.

Call me a contrarian. But I don’t buy the argument that speaking is more difficult in the digital age.

Lecture halls, conference calls, and meeting rooms are perfect little democracies. Audiences vote with their attention spans. If people feel the benefit, they will pay attention. If not, they won’t.

And it’s always been that way. The only difference today is the manner in which attention spans wander. In the old days, if you were dull, people would fantasize about their love interest. Today, if you are dull, people still fantasize about their love interest. But they also can tap out emails to them on their iPhone.

If you want to overcome digital distractions, you need to give people a strong reason to pay attention. You keep them engaged in four ways.

First, start the presentation by stating a simple listener benefit for paying attention. “During this presentation, I’d like to discuss how your organization can grow its revenues despite increased regulatory scrutiny.” If you don’t tell people a clear reason why they should to listen to you, then they have every right to turn to their smartphones.

Second, lay out a simple agenda for your presentation, meeting or conference call. “During this call, I want to discuss three things: the current regulatory environment, how it’s hurting us, and what we can do about it.” A clear roadmap gives a sense of what to expect and that you have your thoughts well-organized. That makes it easier to stay focused and pay attention.

Third, whenever possible, ask people questions and let them respond. Interactive is always better. One-sided presentations, meetings and conference calls multiply the chance of people tuning out. If people are involved in a discussion with you, they won’t be on their iPhones. That’s a guarantee.

Finally, be passionate. If you’re droning on like that dull teacher in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” people aren’t going to pay attention. But if you’re excited, they will listen.

It’s easy to blame the digital age for making it harder to connect with audiences. Don’t buy it. The fault dear speaker lies not in your listeners’ iPhones but in your skills as a communicator.

Joey Asher

Joey AsherJoey Asher has worked with thousands of business people helping them learn how to communicate in a way that connects with clients. His new book 15 Minutes Including Q&A: a Plan to Save the World from Lousy Presentations” is available now. He is also the author three previous books including “How to Win a Pitch: The Five Fundamentals That Will Distinguish You from the Competition”, “Selling and Communication Skills for Lawyers” and “Even A Geek Can Speak.”