Giving a presentation can be nerve-wracking even to the most seasoned public speaker. When you’re already on edge, interruptions can be hard to handle.
We talked to more than a dozen people who give speeches or presentations regularly. This is how they recommend preventing interruptions during your next speech or how to deal with them if they do happen.
How to Prevent Interruptions in the First Place
Preparation is critical to giving a good speech. In the same way, it’s important to prepare your audience to hear it. These strategies will help your audience settle into listening mode and give you an air of authority.
Hold questions until the end
Almost every expert we talked to recommended this approach. This will hopefully prevent most interruptions.
“I’ll specify that there will be time for Q&A at the end and to please hold all questions until then. I may mention then that I will also stick around after the event if anyone needs a more detailed or personal answer,” says Amie Skilton, a nutritionist and life coach.
You can also remind someone who interrupted you to ask their question when you’ve finished, according to Julie Austin, who manages a speaker’s bureau.
“A professional speaker should be able to feed off of the audience and turn an interruption into a brilliant moment,” Austin says. “But if you aren’t that experienced, just politely mention that you’ll answer their question after the presentation. Ignoring them usually makes it worse.”
Tell them what’s coming
If you share your agenda with audience members, you’ll probably forestall interruptions. It’s what experts like John Cleese and Toastmasters recommend.
So does Fabian Geyrhalter, a brand consultant: “When I outline the purpose of the meeting, I also walk through the agenda and ask if anyone has anything else to add. I promise that if they allow me to run the meeting, I will, in return, promise to keep the meeting on time and on schedule as I value everyone’s time.”
Introduce yourself one-on-one
If you’re presenting to a small group, you should have the opportunity to introduce yourself to people you haven’t met before. Elliott B. Jaffa, a behavioral psychologist and management consultant, says that relationships—even brand new ones—deter interruptions.
“Introduce yourself to the people whom you do not know. Make eye contact, shake hands, tell them your name, ask for his/hers and repeat it. Inquire what they are hoping to learn from you, what brings them to the meeting, [and] what they want to come away with.”
Get introduced by the emcee or presenter
This is helpful for audiences where you don’t know anyone or don’t have the opportunity to meet the audience beforehand. It will give you more gravitas, especially if the emcee can explain your expertise on your topic. That’s what James Goodnow, an attorney, recommends:
“Whenever possible, have someone introduce you. As part of this process, your introducer should ask audience members to disable their cell phones and request their full attention so they can get the most out of the speech. By doing this, you can hopefully head off the biggest potential interrupters.”
Turn off or silence phones
Goodnow brought up a good point about phones. They’re a very common cause of accidental interruptions. Remind your audience to silence or turn off their phones at the beginning of your talk.
“I’d always encourage people to put mobiles on vibrate in advance,” says Charles Cary, a speaker and author. Cary suggests a simple prompt at the beginning of your presentation: “Please put your phone on vibrate so as to not interrupt your neighbor who might really need critical information.”
Provide question and comment cards
This tip is helpful for controversial or sensitive topics. Ilene Marcus, a management consultant and author of Managing Annoying People, suggests going beyond the traditional index card.
“Provide an avenue for the audience to ask questions during the presentation through electronic media, like a webinar sidebar, Twitter, or emails. You can also use low-tech—index cards, or sign-up boards around the room. Use any mechanism that gives those interrupters who can’t help themselves a way to get the thought out without saying it out loud.”
How to Respond to Interruptions
Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself getting interrupted anyway. The experts we talked to recommend these strategies for getting your talk back on track.
Acknowledge the interruption
You can nip an interruption in the bud, says Gayle Carson, a speaker and life coach.
“I always acknowledge the person because if you don’t they will just keep being obnoxious. By focusing the attention on them (which is what they want) and have everyone looking at them, the rest of the audience will keep them in check as they don’t want the disruption.”
Hit the pause button
Or, if you’re frustrated, or someone has persisted in interrupting you, stall them. That’s what Billy Lowe, a hair stylist and TV personality, recommends:
“Sometimes simply doing nothing and not responding is the best method for keeping everyone together and collected. There are people who thrive on attention and will do anything to get it even if it means disrupting an educational opportunity. There are people who look to whatever way possible to engage with others or the speaker (at the) event, and they haven’t figured out a way to do it in a positive manner so they do it through disruption.”
Remind them to hold their question
Even if you’ve already asked your audience to hold their thoughts until the end, a reminder is still the best tactic for dealing with interruptions. That’s what Beth Bridges, a speaker and author, recommends.
“If they still interrupt you in either situation, acknowledge them but remind them, ‘Thank you, that’s a good question. Let’s keep moving forward with the presentation so we’re sure to cover everything in the time we have, and then I can address that after if we have time.'”
Use humor to defuse the situation
If you have a quick wit, this can actually aid your presentation. The audience will join your side. Don’t force it, but if you see an opportunity for a friendly joke, take it. That’s what Lowe recommends:
“As a speaker the important thing is to keep the audience together and engaged and to keep the process flowing. However when disruption happens there’s nothing like a little comic relief. Find humor in the situation. Make light of the situation and perhaps make a joke out of it. Use the name of the person that caused the distraction and encourage a little fun in the room.”
Still, be careful not to go too far. Nancy Friedman, a customer service consultant, says that a mean-spirited joke can turn your audience against you.
“Never embarrass or harass an audience member. They are the customers at that moment. You will have a very difficult time winning them back if you do that.”
Stay Calm and Collected
Even rude or hostile interruptions—actually, especially those ones—are more about the disruptor than they are about you. So take a deep breath or two, and keep your cool. Jen Brown, a presentation coach, walked us through it:
“Don’t let them see you sweat. If you’re staying true to the audience and the moment, you won’t sweat. If you are like 99 percent of the population and have a bit of a brain lock, where your brain seems to stop working and fixates on one thing, try to keep as calm and measured as possible, taking a deep breath before you move on.”