You’re giving a presentation at work. You put a lot of time into your research but everybody’s just looking at their phones and open laptops.
You’re working with a youth group, giving instructions for some volunteer work they’re about to do. Instead of paying attention, they’re goofing off, tripping each other, and laughing.
You’re teaching a classroom of kids about the philosophers of ancient Greece. It’s clear from the noise level in the classroom that they couldn’t care less.
These situations are frustrating and your instinct is to yell, “HEY! I need you all to pay attention and be respectful.”
But if you’ve tried that, then you know it usually only works for a minute or two, if at all.
Here’s the ugly truth: it’s your fault they aren’t listening.
It’s your fault they are looking at their phones. It’s your fault they are goofing off.
This feels unfair. It feels like there should be some baseline of attention and respect that people owe whomever is speaking. The truth is that the audience’s attention belongs to them and if the speaker wants it, they need to earn it.
A keynote speaker earns it by opening with their credentials and history of success, even if they’re uncomfortable emphasizing that.
A youth leader earns it by connecting with each kid on a personal level, listening to them, and taking the time to learn how to speak their language.
A teacher earns it by doing the work to make the content interesting and accessible to their students. A note on this: any content can be made accessible to any audience. In our family’s lunch lessons we regularly teach 6-year-olds about algebra, trigonometry, electronics, and astrophysics. Some days go better than others but we always know whose fault it is if we lose them.
Sometimes there’s a structural problem. If people are consistently distracted in a meeting, maybe those people don’t belong in that meeting. Maybe the meeting needs to be shortened, cancelled, or scheduled less frequently.
Either way, a distracted audience is a sign that something’s wrong. Don’t ignore it or pass the blame. Take ownership and figure out how to make it better next time.