How presenters can defeat distraction and focus

title on focus Presentation

Focus is another important part of delivering a presentation. You need to be able to focus on the message that you are giving. You need to focus on the audience right in front of you. Plus, you do not need to be distracted by the gazillion thought racing through your head. The doubts, the fears, or even the E-mail that you haven’t returned yet.

Focus can be a hard thing to do in this day and age. We are constantly married to our smartphones, Slack message, and your SNS of choice. If it beeps, buzzes, or pings we got to respond. Sometimes it seems that our smartphone is more in charge of us than we are in charge of them. But, we need to take charge if we are to be presenters full of peace and power.

But why is focus so important? As I just pointed out being distracted in the middle of a speech is can really hurt your performance. Not to mention when a big actual distraction does occur like a cellphone ringing just at the most important part of your TEDx talk.

You still need to poise and focus to humorously deal with the problem and move on as nothing happened. Also, we need to be able to focus on all the preparation that is needed for creating and practicing our presentation. So, what can you do to build focus?

Three things to improve your focus on stage

1) Go on a digital diet
2) Expand with games and practice
3) Deliberately distract with a mess rehearsal

Before you try …

begin coffee

There are quite a few other techniques to increase focus and concentration. If you are interested in the topic I also recommend reading further into the topic. But, even before going into the above three there are two basic things that you need to deal with first, otherwise no matter what technique you use you will not get much of a result. These two basic things are sleep and exercise.

If you are getting less than six hours of sleep mostly your performance will be subpar. It would seem obvious, but not everyone pays attention to it. Practicing your speech at the last minute the night before speech like you did when you had to cram for a test usually doesn’t work.

In fact, on the night before, if you don`t get enough sleep it will be hard to concentrate on your speech, you will probably forget parts of it especially if you practiced it a lot the night before.

Also, getting too pumped and worried about the speech the night before almost guarantees that you will not get a good night’s sleep. Your heart will be racing with excitement. And it will probably take time before you calm down enough to get a good night’s sleep.

So, I recommend not doing too much practice on the evening before. You can do practice in the afternoon or morning. Pick a time that fits your schedule the best. But make sure you are rested and ready for the big day.

Also, if you having issues getting a good night’s rest in the long term, please make getting at least 6 hours of sleep a priority. There is a very small segment of people who can go without 6~8 hrs of sleep. These are very rare individuals. No matter what you may wish to be true, mostly like you are not one of them.

A Good night`s nest + the time when you’re at your best = …

Another thing to consider with regards to sleep is your sleep type. Some people are morning people and some people are evening people and the rest after somewhere in between. While you cannot always control the schedule of your talk if you can choose I would consider the time when you are at your best.

As a morning person, scheduling a presentation in the morning would be great. If you’re an evening person, having a presentation much later in the day would be better. But, for the vast majority of people, a good time would before lunch.

A lot of people get slightly sleep right after lunch and concentration goes down not just for the speaker but for the audience as well. This is why the 1-3 pm period should be avoided like the plague if possible for a vast majority of people.

Exercise and presenting?

Besides sleep, there is another thing that is fundamental to concentration. That is exercise. People who are not fit, tend to feel unwell. They have a harder time concentrating. Plus, they also have a lot less energy.

When I mean exercise, I’m not talking about doing 30 minutes to an hour of strenuous exercise a day. You do not have to run or work out at the gym every day either. Just walking at least 15-30 minutes a day, preferably at a park or some natural area will greatly help your concentration.

As a speaker, your body is your instrument, so you need to take good care of it. To do so, wouldn’t making sure you are sleeping well, eating well, and exercising be a good idea? I would hate to hear that you tried such and such technique listed below and found out that it didn’t work because you did not first deal with basic fundamentals of health.

Be sure to get enough sleep (6-8 hours) and some exercise (15- 30 minutes). This is fundamental. Without that, no other “hacks” will work.

Dealing with distracting social media

SNS pic

Once concerns over sleep and exercise are out of the way, the next thing to tackle is our biggest source of distraction. That would be social media.

Social Media is designed to be addicting. Just imagine if you eliminated all SNS from your smartphone. How does that feel? If that scares you even a little bit, you have a problem.

But there are those that may think, “Hey that is a great idea!” But, if that is really the case, why haven’t you done it yet? Why don`t you try it and tell me how it worked out.

Going on a digital diet

If you want to give it a try, here is what Cal Newport the author of “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” and “Digital Minimalism” recommends. He says you should spending two weeks away from social media.

Have yourself logged out by default. Make sure you do not have a password manager taking care of the login for you. Make access to social media as tedious as possible. That should help reduce or completely eliminate your time with social media by increasing friction.

If for some reason you do need access to social media, make sure you schedule the time and stick to that schedule. That can before 30 minutes to an hour. I try to keep it no more than 30 minutes. I use a timer so I am aware of how much time I spend.

l turn off all the alerts. The alerts are a major culprit for ruining our concentration. I have most of them off as a default. The only one that is on is the one my wife mainly uses. In that case, only in an emergency do any of the alerts get through.

Still, even I have found myself watching way too much YouTube if I am not careful. I set out researching a topic on YouTube and then get distracted. This is a bad situation, so I limit this research time as well.

It can be ok to create but don’t read too much

On the other hand I do post to social media. I like to write and putting out in various media. However this can get out of hand very easily. You do not need post to all media all the time, despite what any marketer will say. I would say to pick one and stick with it.

Why do this? The objective here is to purely to get ideas out of your head. In my case, I like to see how others react to them if at all. I want to see the comments, not the “likes.” I could care less if anything goes viral.

If you are starting off, most likely you will not get much of a reaction from anyone. That is par for the course. I would use this time as an exercise in output. But stick to one. Otherwise, it will distract you from your main task. That is getting better at presentations.

Eliminating distraction outside of SNS

Please note that I am not putting all the blame on social media for our lack of focus. There are other sources that can be found in a variety of places. It is important for you to be in a place with as few distractions as possible.

This means that if you are working at home, it is generally a good idea that you work in a room with no TV. Keep your smartphone in another room. Or lock it in a box or something.

Keeping the room tidy is also important. I have seen my partner suddenly start cleaning while in the middle of making materials for an important presentation. Some people will start cleaning things because that seems productive. That is what your rational brain is fooling you to think.

But what is really happening is they are just running away from the harder task. To avoid this you either need better willpower or a cleaner environment. I would go with cleaning before or after you do the hard lifting.

SNS can be the #1 enemy for presenters. Log out all SNS, make it hard to get back in. Keep your smartphone locked away. Also, keep your practice area free of any kind of distraction.

Working on your working memory

info matrix

After you remove initial distractions the next step is improving your ability to focus. This can be done in a variety of ways. One is to work towards improving working memory.

Our working memory is for remembering things in the short term. If we have a very short working memory it is hard to hold onto one thought when there are other distractions and inputs going on. Our brains are taking a lot of information at one time.

If you are doing a speech, you are looking at other people’s faces or maybe the chatbox if you are online doing a live presentation. There can be noise another distractions coming from the room that you’re in.

You will probably be thinking not only about what you are saying now, but what you need to say next. A few more experienced people will also start to consider if they need to make modifications based on the reaction of the people listening. There is a lot going on for your brain to keep track of.

Why not try DNB?

Because your brain is very busy when you are delivering a presentation, you need to give it the working memory that it deserves. But how can you do that? One of the best ways of doing so is playing a game called the DNB. DNB means Dual N – Back. It has been shown by Johns Hopkins University to improve working memory, though they are still not sure why.

DNB works like this. You are shown a combination of shapes, letters, colors, etc. And you have to remember if that combination is the same as what was shown a little while back. So if n = 2. It would be two turns back, if n = 4. It would be four turns back.

Most apps using the DNB method allow you to set the difficulty to however you want. You should be able to find several DNB apps in the app store.

The important thing is to practice every day. It is only by doing so that you will see any results. Also if you stop practicing for a long while and you are not doing any tasks that also require a strong working memory you will lose it.

The brain requires a lot of energy to maintain, so if you are not using some part with regularity, your body may slowly remove that part to be used for something else.

Be deliberately bored or try meditation

Another way to improve focus and concentration is to meditate or simply to be bored. I would start with trying to be deliberately bored first. For a lot of people when there is nothing to do they will immediately go to their smartphone for some diversion.

In order to discipline your brain, you need to work on pushing back that impulse and simply be alone with your thoughts for a while. If you can maintain about 30 minutes of nothing once a week, that is a good start. I would put it on your calendar otherwise you’ll probably never get around to doing it.

As I mentioned meditation is also a good way of improving concentration. There are a lot of guided apps out there. These apps can help you concentrate on your breathing or concentrate on a word/sentence ringing in your mind. It will be hard at the beginning, but after you get the hang of it, you will feel more relaxed and you will be able to concentrate even more.

Great Self-Image Making For Speaking
Great Self-Image Making For Speaking
I talked in a previous blog article that having courage not confidence is the mo.....

Using DNB or other tools to increase your short term working memory will enhance your performance. You make longer presentations. You can deal with distractions and decrease the likelihood of losing your place.

Keep track of progress

small wins

Another important thing is to keep track of how long you can focus and concentrate. Focus can be mind-numbingly hard to improve. We have been condition by social media to have short attention spans.

To continue to motivate yourself on improving your ability to focus, I recommend that you keep track of how long you can focus or the longest number of items in DNB that you could do that day.

By recording that looking at you will be able to see visible improvement. It may not be much. You may even fall backward on some days, but if you keep at it you will improve in the long run.

That improvement will make you that much better at dealing with longer speeches or inopportune distractions so it is well worth trying out. You can simply write it down on paper, the notepad of your computer, or even in Evernote. Just choose the tool that works the best for you.

What get tracked grows. If you stay on the wagon. Track your progress. It may not be much, but it will keep you on task. You may even be able to make a story out of it.

The Mess Rehearsal

on stage

After you have been working on improving your concentration and focus bit by bit, the next step is working with the so-called Mess Rehearsal. This is something that I learn from Sekou Andrews.

I’m sure you are familiar with a dress rehearsal. That is simply a practice that is almost like the real thing before the big day when the show does go on. But in a Mess Rehearsal, you have someone who is deliberately trying to mess you up.

Why would you even want to do that? Think of it this way.

A practicing baseball player deliberately adds weights to the bat when they practice their swings. This makes practice much harder than a real swing at bat. But once the batter swings the bat for real they can do it faster and put more power into the bat than before. It is much easier to swing the bat once the weights have been removed.

The same goes for presenting. If you make your practice situation filled with more distractions or psychological pressure, it will make you that much more mentally resilient and more able to focus.

Exactly how you should do this will depend on your current level of focus and mental resilience. I would not go overboard at first. In fact, If it is your first time trying something like this, I would make sure that you got your presentation down pat first. Then you can start experimenting.

Avoiding Anxiety When Presenting
Avoiding Anxiety When Presenting
If you are like most people, the thought of getting on the stage in front of a h.....

Deliberately driving yourself to distraction

So what can you do? You could have a picture of an angry-looking boss looking at you while you are trying to give a presentation. Or maybe a series of angry-looking people staring at you.

You could have your screaming kid running around in a nearby room while you’re trying to give a presentation. There are all kinds of ways you could try to make yourself more and more resilient to distraction. It is all limited by your creativity.

Plan and prevent

In addition to the three things mentioned above with improving your focus, there is one more thing that I think you should consider. That is planning ahead in preventing and remediating distractions. Nothing give your brain more peace of mind than already deciding what to do when something bad happens.

But, once you make a few rules up front it is important to actually following them. Also, people sometimes forget, when they start to panic, so it can be helpful to have some reminders somewhere in case of emergency.

IF… THEN rule for presenters

So, what kind of rules should you have? These should be very simple IF… THEN rules. For example. IF I forget where I am in my presentation, THEN I glance at my notes. If you set this rule up, make sure you make your notes easily scannable.

Where I see people failing here, is that they make a very detailed script of rather small text. When people start to panic because they forgot where they were in the speech their focus starts to narrow. This make reading small font detailed text hard to read. It can seem like an eternity before you find your place, if you find it at all.

If you have several pages of notes, there is a good chance that you will forget to change the page. If you do that and forget your place, then you could possibly have a situation of shuffling through your notes trying to find your place. You might not have much success and the panic will get worse and worse. This is not a good situation.

Therefore, it is much better to have all your notes on one sheet of paper big with letters big enough for you to scan easily. That will mean that you cannot write all your speech on paper, but key points, phrases, reminders of stories, etc. That should be enough.

Forgetting a detail, there is an IF… THEN for that

But what if you forget some details not in your notes? Simple create another rule to keep you on track. IF I forget some details not on my notes, THEN I will keep talking as if they were not relevant.

Talking can be a momentum game, if you get distracted by not being able to remember key information, you will stop and it will get awkward. Fortunately for you, in many cases, if you keep going your brain will eventually retrieve the information and you can circle back if you want.

In any case, it is much better for you to prepare and decide on rules to follow. It will limit the mental distractions inside your head. It will make it easier for you to focus on the presentation at hand. This will lead to fewer mistakes. This will also lead to much less panicking when mistakes do occur. And believe me, they will.


There are other ways to increase focus and concentration outside the three basic ideas listed. But, first it better to make your practicing environment clear free of clutter, put your smartphone on a digital diet, slowly work on improving your mental concentration, and then improve your focus and resilience by adding pressure during your practice session.

If you are interested in learning more about more tips on public speaking, etc. please continue looking at other articles on this site. If you have questions, comments, etc. Please leave those here.

Matthew Ownby

Previously worked at NASA, Cisco Japan, and other large IT Corporation. Spent more than 15 years training businessmen and women to be better presenters. Good enough at Japanese help native Japanese speakers win speaking contests. Was fortunate enough to give a TEDx Talk in Kyoto also in Japanese ;). Also aims to build the toughest communication contest ever. That will not only include being good at business presentation skills, but debate, meeting facilitation, negotiation, coaching, and more. Also runs an online communication dojo where the focus is on practical skill application not listening to a sage on a stage.

Matthew Ownbyをフォローする


Copied title and URL