Pence and the Fly: How to Swat Distractions as a Public Speaker
If something unexpected happens, make the incongruity work in your favor.
None of the talking heads saw it coming. Everyone from Julia-Louis Dreyfus to Maria Shriver to Bob Saget tweeted a response. Vice President Pence was completely upstaged for about two minutes.
Enter, the fly.
Toward the end of the debate, as Pence was speaking on racial bias in law enforcement, a black fly landed on the vice president's very white hair, and made itself at home for about two minutes.
The response was wide-sweeping and immediate. Vice President Biden posted a tweet of himself holding a fly swatter that said, "Pitch in $5 to help this campaign fly." And his campaign sold out of a brand new "Truth Over Flies" fly swatter almost immediately.
Given the contentious tone of the presidential debate last week, it was inevitable that the American people would jump at the chance to blow off a little steam.
But the appearance of the fly and the explosion of activity that followed shines a bright spotlight on a significant problem for public speakers: How does someone influence their audience if they're being upstaged by distractions that can't be ignored?
At the time the fly landed on his head, Vice President Pence was, after all, speaking on racial bias in law enforcement. This is a topic that has truly rocked the country this year. And yet, attention to the whole issue was hijacked by an insect with a 24-hour life span.
The explosion on the Internet provides us with an obvious reminder of how easily our audience can give in to distraction. How can a speaker overcome such developments when it's their turn to speak?
The Digital Age = Distraction
It is, of course, easy to see that distraction is an even greater problem than usual these days. So many of us have been pent up in our homes for over six months now, constantly debating with ourselves how safe it is to do something as simple as go for a walk. Many of us have Zoom fatigue, wherein we've just about had it with sitting at a table staring at a screen of faces who never quite look us in the eye because they're looking at us on their screen as we don't quite look them in the eye, either.
Even trying to describe video chatting in that paragraph is giving me a headache.
I, for one, have been on plenty of Zoom calls when a dog, a child, or an alarming sound suddenly shows up on the scene. It's certainly telling how the person who's sharing the frame with said distractions handle it. Typically they look at the camera of their computer with steely resolve to remain focused on the other people.
I remember one time being on a call where a woman was speaking on a call, and not one but three kids found their way into the frame. She did the steely resolve thing as she tried to shove her progeny back out of the frame.
This appraoch, however, is a mistake.
Of course, being a more captivating speaker can help to mitigate the impact of distractions like these. It's better to tell compelling stories than not. And I like to recommend those who give virtual presentations to first explicitly state the problem they're there to help their audience solve because it grounds the audience in a reason to stick around and listen.
But what can you do when something happens that's really not supposed to happen?
Kramer vs. The Floor
You more than likely remember the many times that Kramer, the enigmatic neighbor on Seinfeld, fell as he struggled with an oversized box, his hand slipped off a greasy doorknob, or he failed to grab a seat on the subway. Michael Richards is considered by some to be one of the great physical comedians of our time, and his antics provided a noteworthy contrast to some of the more cerebral forms of humor that defined one of the most popular shows of all time.
But Kramer's series of falls is rather useful to us when considering the possibility of our speaking being upstaged by distraction as well.
This is because physical comedy demonstrates what is arguably the most basic form of comedy, and is therefore the simplest way to explain what makes something funny: incongruity.
A person who falls is funny because they were supposed to be standing and now they're really, really not. To remain standing would be congruent with the situation, but to fall flat on one's backside is the opposite: 100 percent incongruent.
This discrepancy is why we laugh when Kramer spazzes out and falls from his chair at a restaurant.
But this also means that humor then exists on a spectrum, and it becomes incrementally more sophisticated as we graduate from physical bits to something like puns. My favorite quip to come out of the vice presidential debate, "Black Flies Matter." But then we go all the way up to far more nuanced jokes such as those baked into layers of meaning in a Shakespearean play (in doing a quick search on Shakespearean jokes I found that the top hits are all dirty in nature — let's keep this clean, people).
But, no matter how obvious or sophisticated, all of humor is based on several things not being in alignment.
This is why Twitter exploded in response to the fly — the stark black and white contrast, the fact that he didn't know it was there. It was ripe with incongruity.
In this way, the speaker becomes a punchline, the exact opposite of what they're meant to be: a source of hope.
As such, an incongruity like an anomalous fly doesn't just lend itself to memes and jokes. It can completely derail your presentation.
With distraction being such fertile ground for turning your presentation into a punchline, what are you supposed to do about it?
Insight From An Unlikely Source
In exploring this problem I'm reminded of the movie She's Out of My League starring Jay Baruchel and Alice Eve. Baruchel's character's best friend is played by T.J. Miller, whose character goes by the unlikely name of "Stainer." At the end it becomes revealed that in grade school Stainer was given that name by the other kids because he soiled himself and Baruchel's character told him to own it. He then took his power back by using the name himself so no one could hurt him with it.
He was no longer other people's punchline.
In a presentation, it's quite possible that you'll fall prey to a distraction, such as a child, a pet, a noise, or even a technological disruption.
If something during your presentation is at risk of distracting your audience from something you're saying that is meaningful — because why else would you be speaking — your best tool is to simply acknowledge the distraction.
And, to whatever extent is possible, incorporate it into whatever you're saying.
As we have already established, incongruity is the culprit. Something distracting is at risk of hijacking your audience's attention and possibly even turning your carefully crafted content into a joke.
But this also means that congruity is the savior. And your job is to make the distraction your own.
What might this look like? Let's say one of your children shows up in the frame while you're in the middle of speaking about reaching end-of-year goals. Rather than push them out of the frame, put your arm around them and take a moment to tell a super quick story of something that your child said or did that reminded you of how important it is that you see this year through to the end.
Or, let's say that dog starts to bark while you're giving a webinar on meditation. You could actually incorporate that into your teachings, that life will happen as it does and a sudden disruptive noise can be an alarm that reminds you to go back to your breath.
And if a technical disruption takes place, tie that into the significance of uncertainty in our lives and somehow relate what you're speaking about to how we overcome uncertainty and what you're doing to manage such things in your own life.
The larger point here is that humor teaches us what makes a distraction so powerful. Incongruity attracts attention, and even laughs. Yet the savvy speaker can harness that power, turn it on its end, and make it work for them. They can own the nickname, so to speak. They can make the unexpected their greatest asset for connecting with others.
Which means that sometimes the greatest catastrophes are our greatest opportunities for success.
A Missed Opportunity
As of this writing, President Trump has tweeted extensively on the vice presidential debate. He's made his typically grand declarations and retweeted a number of related items as well.
But hasn't mentioned the fly.
With each passing minute that he ignores it, the chasm between what happened and what he tweets about grows ever larger. The incongruity of the situation becomes more and more powerful.
This only draws more attention to the topic.
And will only sell more "Truth Over Flies" fly swatters.
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