It would be so great if every presentation went off swimmingly. If no one ever interrupted, arrived late, spent time shuffling in their seat or whispering to a friend. But the reality is that most presentations have something go awry. Even if you think it’s never happened in a presentation you have attended, it just means that the presenter covered it smoothly enough for it not to be noticed.
Now we don’t have all the answers but there are a few disruptions to your presentation that we can help you handle with aplomb.
We believe that your first step to managing tricky behaviour is to begin with the premise that your audience is with you, as opposed to against you. It’s true you know. Your audience is in fact, generally rooting for you – they came out to listen to you talk after all – so you have to start from a place where the assumption is that if their behaviour is disruptive, it’s got nothing to do with you. If there’s fidgeting in the room, for example, it may be that they are reacting to a problem of their own, as opposed to trying to belittle you.
With that said, should you have to deal with tricky behaviour, we would like to recommend that your first approach is always the more considered and gentle one. Begin with using body language and eye contact and if they don’t work only then escalate to using your voice to speak to the problem. This subtle approach will work for you nearly all the time. You do need to keep something at the core of your thinking and that’s the premise that the room is on your side. If you think combatively, your body language and underlying voice cues will automatically signal that to the audience. This isn’t a war, it’s a conversation.
Let’s look at some specific behaviour.
It can be enormously distracting to a presenter (and to audience members) to have a constant buzz of chatter or whispering coming from the audience. But short of being fairly obnoxious by calling the chatty people out in front of everyone, how can you stop the endless stream of conversation?
Start by assuming that they aren’t whispering negatively about you. They may be discussing a point, or even praising you!
We suggest first making eye contact with the culprits, but not like a teacher would (staring them down like naughty children). Look at them, and carry on talking to them as if it’s the most natural part of the presentation. They won’t be able to turn away and chat with each other, if you are holding eye contact them.
Notice out of the corner of your eye, when the person they were talking to looks up and talk to them for a moment or so and then move on to the rest of the crowd. If you see them talking again, repeat the process.
This is very often the foundation to managing a lot of problematic behaviour. It’s not a glare nor is it a stare, it just gently engages them back into your presentation.
Now let’s assume that the guilty parties don’t glance up and catch your eye. You will need to pause your talk. Inevitably they will look up to see what the pause is about. At this stage you catch their eye and carry on talking to them as if nothing happened. Watch your body language here, if you are feeling slighted you will naturally be inclined to glance away as soon as they look up (like someone saying they caught them out). Rather maintain eye contact for a reasonable period and then keep going.
The SMSer, Reader or Tweeter
As soon as they glance up from their phone or pamphlet, you need to catch their eye, and speak as if directly to them. This will draw their attention and make the interaction rather personal. Maintain your eye contact and carry on going.
Be aware of what’s happening in the venue though, as you will need to manage the room, without the room knowing that you are managing them. Your most basic tool to do this is eye contact.
If you’ve tried the eye contact, tried the pause, tried engaging them and the person they are talking to, and this still hasn’t solved the issue, only at this point do we move onto a direct question. But again, watch your body language and be sure to couch your question in the most friendly terms.
The restless room
Sometimes, even if the conditions are perfect, the room is restless for some unknown reason. Again we suggest that you make as much eye contact with the ‘fidgeters’ as possible. Look to your own energy. You may need to up it a little bit (especially if the room is feeling low-key and possibly even sleepy). Cut back on the facts, up the story telling factor and even speed up your delivery a little.
If none of those things settle the room you may need to ask the audience what’s going on directly. But before you do, check your attitude. Make sure you are asking from a place of concern for them as opposed to a place of discipline. This isn’t personal.
It’s an opportunity for you to lighten the mood, while acknowledging it, and then also bringing it to the attention of the audience. A comment along the lines of “I realise I am all that’s keeping you from a delectable tea, and I can tell that we’re all restless to get to it, but I will only keep you for another few minutes” or even “There seems to be a fair amount of shuffling in the room, is it the air-con? What’s happening out there?” In that way you let the room know that you can see their moving around and are subtly asking them to settle, while still showing empathy for them.
The persistent or argumentative questioner
It’s great to have an engaged audience. One who reacts to your presentation with insightful questions. It’s a great experience and one we hope you get to enjoy. It can however turn into a less than perfect scenario when your questions only come from one person, repeatedly. The key here is that you have to stop them in their tracks. As soon as it becomes apparent that you have a persistent questioner on your hands, you need to change the way you react to them. Like we said in our previous article, the key here is non-verbal communication. Start your answer by looking at them, then break eye contact and give your answer to the greater room. Your non-verbal cue here is imperative and will signal that either you are willing to answer more questions from the person (maintaining eye contact and giving encouraging pauses) or that you are not (breaking eye contact and moving on swiftly). Shorter answers and less eye contact discourage questions.
If this doesn’t work, then move to a verbal response to stopping questions. Acknowledge their questions and their need to spend more time with you. Saying something along the lines of “It seems you have a few more questions and I would love to engage with you on this more deeply afterwards. I’m running out of time right now, so let’s pick this up after the talk”. Then you break eye contact and move on without pausing. Just one tip here; don’t ask them if they are ok with you picking it up afterwards. They may say no, or carry on asking questions. They key is to make a statement, not ask permission. Just remember your attitude and make sure it isn’t mean.
This type of questioner can also become argumentative.
There are always going to be other points of view, and some of those may arise during your presentation – in your head acknowledge that this is ok, otherwise you will get defensive. Unless you want your presentation to turn into an argument between two people however, you will have to shut down this line of questioning pretty fast. It’s really important that you don’t lose your temper, or become hostile. Acknowledge that other people may think differently to yourself. Stick to the facts or your own personal experiences (no-one can argue with either of those!), and above all do not get emotional. There is a fine line between having a robust debate and shutting someone down in the room. That line is when the discussion is no longer relevant to anyone else in the room other than the questioner.
A heckler is someone who is being argumentative or difficult without actually questioning you. Often this comes in the form of sounds, or snide comments. Comedienne, Jerry Seinfeld, had a go-to strategy for dealing with hecklers. He would offer empathy. They would shout something and he would reply by saying “You seem really upset, and I know that’s not how you wanted this evening to go, so let’s talk about what’s happening with you”, and it wasn’t said with any trace of sarcasm. This would apparently stop the snarky comments. Of course it’s easier to stop them heckling if you are as witty as Jerry, just as long as you don’t turn mean.
Step one is always to ignore the person, and hope it stops. If it doesn’t, make eye contact with the person as you talk. This will be hard as they are being threatening and your instinct will be to look away. If this doesn’t stop them in their tracks you can try going the way Seinfeld does. It works because he shows genuine care and interest in the person. If you are gentle with them and behave in a non-threatening way a few things happen. One is that you draw the sympathy of the audience. You are then managing the audience, and drawing them on to your ‘side’ without them knowing. Very often what happens at this point is that the audience tells the person to be quiet. You can also say something along the lines of “I’m struggling to get through this part of my presentation. Would you mind holding your comments and I will be happy to chat with you at the end.” Remain respectful and well mannered, and you will take the audience with you. Use the words I am struggling or battling and let the audience root for you. They love an underdog, which is why if you become defensive or attacking the audience will take a metaphorical step back and leave you to sort out your own dog-fight. Ensure that you don’t humiliate the person you are engaging with, or you will lose the rest of your audience pretty quickly.
Every room is different and the issues that presenters face vary widely but if you keep your cool, maintain eye contact, breathe and pause, the room will come with you on your presentation journey.