Archive for September 23rd, 2009

When Ya Gotta Go…

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

Yesterday, Iran’s president spoke at the United Nations. As he began, the entire UK delegation walked out. No, they didn’t need a potty break. It was an act of protest against an oppressive regime. And no one present missed the message.

Today, I spoke at a luncheon. Mid-way through my presentation, two ladies walked out. As it happened, this was not a protest. Instead, it was… a doctor’s appointment.

In the real world of public speaking, these things happen. Cell phones ring. (And occasionally – someone in the audience actually answers the call.) Talkative types continue their conversations, oblivious both to the speaker and to those around them. Waiters and busboys in the kitchen assume incorrectly that – with the kitchen door closed – we can’t hear them. Teens and 20-somethings text non-stop, like demented court stenographers (except that I’m pretty sure they aren’t writing down anything I say.

And sometimes, a person who would never dream of being rude simply feels an urgent call of nature. They exit because – when ya’ gotta go, ya’ gotta go.

All of these interruptions are distracting for the person speaking. But few such situations are improved by the speaker calling attention to them. For this reason, as long as people leave the room (or text) quietly, I try to hold the focus of the rest of the audience, because I understand that these are only momentary distractions.

However, in the case of ongoing noisy rudeness, I’ve learned (the hard way) that it is much better to let an audience of their peers correct the bad actors, than for me to do it directly.

If I take someone to task from the podium, I am assuming the role of parent or teacher of an unruly child – and that’s not my function. But – when I simply stop speaking, glance at the offending persons, then open my hands at mid-chest in a gesture of “what?” – the audience almost inevitably does the heavy lifting for me. Choruses of SHHHH! fill the room. Once in a while, a stern Good Samaritan will even walk over to the blabbermouths, and they fill the disapproving parent/teacher role. Better them than me.

There may be no known cure for the rudeness disease, but there is one pretty effective treatment. It occurs every time I am introduced on stage by someone well-known to and well-liked by the audience – someone who brings the instincts of a Marine Drill Sergeant to the podium. When that beloved peer lays down the law in advance, telling the crowd that they will turn off their cell phones, and they will listen attentively in a way that brings honor to their group, it has a most beneficial result. Generally, folks who know they are being held to a higher standard of behavior rise to the occasion.

At least – until they gotta go.