I do a lot of public speaking. When I am presenting to a large audience there isn’t a presentation where I don’t spot a person who has actually fallen asleep. Now you might think I am crazy admitting it here, but I know it has nothing to do with me. In fact, I’ve had people fall asleep and after the talk others come up and tell me it was the best presentation they’ve ever seen. Every experienced public speaker also knows this to be an inevitable reality when they hit the stage – even during the performance of a life time. The weird thing is that anyone speaking always spots the sleeper – we must have some kind of genetic disposition to finding closed eyes, even in a sea of people.
So, what to do about it when someone does fall asleep during your presentation?
Rule Number 1: Remember it has nothing to do with your talk.
We need to remember the the reason people fall asleep when sitting, standing and not lying down is because they are exhausted, not bored. Some things to remember on this point: They have probably had young kids screaming late at night and didn’t get any sleep. They might have had to catch an early flight to get there for the day. They might have been up socialising at the conference to the wee hours of the morning. They probably haven’t had any fresh air all day being stuck in hotel conference rooms. They have a stomach full of heavy food. The venture capitalist has probably sat through 24 other pitches back to back that day. And they probably had some other factor which made them exhausted. Boredom leads to imagination, distraction and people talking among themselves, not sleep. The evidence will most often be the 99% of people loving your talk, while at the same time this person sleeps. I can remember 2 times I fell alseep while listening to two of my favourite public speakers; Steven Wright the comedian who I absolutely love and Will Ferrell during his broadway show on George W Bush – You’re Welcome America. Which both were absolutely hilarious. But both times I happened to have jet lag, and the jet lag won.
Rule Number 2: Don’t obsess over them – ignore it.
No it won’t go away if you ignore it. But your performance will go away if you don’t ignore it. Remember it is not their fault, or yours, it just is. The presentation is for the person nodding their head, looking you in the eye, the person on the edge of their seat. They deserve your full attention and continued focus on the job at hand.
In the end, what we need to focus on is what we can control, and rarely is this issue something in our control. Sure, if an entire room disengages, go back and work on your speaking craft, get better. But the most important thing we can realise when dealing with people and audiences is this: we are not the only force impacting peoples reactions to immediate world around them.