Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Compelling Distractions

In the previous post, I began describing a recent experience in which I was faced with a distraction during a plenary talk.  While I was talking, another speaker was on the floor at my feet going through his own presentation (clearly visible to me on his large-screen monitor that had been set up and connected to his own computer).  I found it extremely difficult to stay focused on my own talk because of this bizarre distraction (along with various other minor distractions).  I was in a quandary as to what to do, if anything.

As I mentioned, this distraction was not obvious to the audience because their view of this fellow was blocked by the cloth-covered tables at the front of the room.  As far as they knew, everything was going smoothly.  After my initial statement, I briefly blanked out on what I wanted to say next.  My mind was whirling as to what this guy was doing, why the moderator (who could see I was distracted by the activity at my feet) was not interceding, and why this was happening to me.  I wondered whether I should just stop speaking and stand there waiting or if I should proceed and try to ignore this guy.  All these thoughts flashed through my brain in a second or two. 

I ultimately decided to ignore him and proceed with my talk...as best I could.  I figured that if I continued having difficulties, I could always stop and tell the moderator that I could not continue until the distraction was stopped.  I'm not sure if this was the best choice, but it's what I did.

I've given many presentations at conferences when people were wandering in and out of the room, or talking, or clinking glassware.  Although annoying, I've learned to ignore all but the most distracting activities.  If you are going to be giving conference presentations, you will have to learn to deal with such distractions.  I generally find that I can ignore most of these routine distractions.  This recent experience has to go to the top of my list of distraction challenges, however.

As I said, I could have stopped talking and refused to continue until the moderator removed the offender.  This, however, would have caused an interruption that most of the audience would not understand.  I think my main motivation for not stopping and complaining, though, was how this would look to colleagues and especially to all the younger attendees:  a senior, respected scientist whining about less-than-perfect conditions during a presentation.  Especially when previous presenters had gamely dealt with various other logistical glitches during their presentations.

Once I made up my mind to proceed and got into my talk, I found it easier to ignore this guy's bizarre behavior.  I focused my view on a section of the audience so that my line of sight did not directly include the distraction, only occasionally glancing in that direction.  I also spent a bit more time than I normally would have looking at my slides on the projector screen, which helped me focus more on my talk and block out the distracting images at my feet.  It also helped to focus on particular (friendly) faces in the audience (which is a good practice anyway if you are nervous).

As it turned out, this was one of my best presentations.  Literally dozens of people told me afterwards how much they enjoyed it.  It seemed to particularly strike a chord with students.  No one noticed anything unusual, and several people commented on how calm and professional my delivery was (a surprise to me because I felt quite flustered).  I questioned a close colleague as to whether he noticed anything unusual during my talk.  He was completely baffled and amazed when I described what was going on at my feet during the talk.  He said that he had no clue anything like that was happening.

In the end, I was happy that I did not interrupt my talk to deal with this distraction and that I was able to give a good talk in spite of it.  I'm not necessarily recommending that a speaker keep quiet when something is wrong.  There are limits to what a speaker should have to bear.  However, my choice to ignore rather than react turned out to be the right one for me...in this particular instance.

In general, it's always a good idea to have some experience in ignoring distractions because in many instances there is nothing that one can do to avoid them. So when faced with a particularly bizarre distraction, as I was, you will not be totally discombobulated.  Interestingly, I am reading a book that discusses two basic modes of thinking (involuntary and voluntary): Thinking, Fast and Slow.  The author, Daniel Kahneman, explains that your attention can be moved away "from an unwanted focus, primarily by focusing intently on another target".  Which is exactly what I did during my presentation.  It's a useful strategy to keep in mind when something unexpected, offensive, and/or distracting interferes with an important task (giving a presentation, taking an exam).

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