Supercompetent Speaking: Dealing With Interruptions and Questions

10 tips to smoothly handle presentation questions—and hecklers.

By Laura Stack, MBA, CSP

As a professional speaker, you’ll inevitably face interruptions during your presentations. They won’t happen every time, but they will happen.

Occasionally, for example, someone will accidentally leave his or her cell phone on, and it’ll ring in the middle of your talk. Most people will duck, act embarrassed, and hang up on the caller…but a few bizarre people will answer the call on the spot, providing an undesired and distracting intermission. Worse, every once in a while you’ll encounter a heckler—someone who deliberately tries to undermine your argument or divert your message. Most interruptions, however, will come from those who have genuine questions, spurred by nothing more than curiosity.

Whatever the case, you must know how to handle interruptions on the fly when they occur—without letting anything stop you in your tracks. Keep these tips in mind:

  1. Know your vulnerabilities and prepare for them. Anticipate the five or six most difficult questions you may face, and know how to counter them concisely. If you have to, write them down on index cards, and have someone drill you on them.
  2. If possible, meet several audience members before the presentation to establish a human connection. This makes them less likely to interrupt later, especially with hostile questions.
  3. At the beginning of your presentation, ask your host to ask the audience to please turn off their cell phones and explain how questions will be handled (during, periodically, or at the end).
  4. If a phone rings during your talk, pause, smile while looking at the offender, and say something humorous, such as, “Is that for me?” and move on. People will get the hint.
  5. If someone interrupts you with a question, let the person finish the thought before answering. Don’t cut him off, because the audience may interpret that as rudeness.
  6. Maintain eye contact with the questioner, during both the question and your answer, nod slightly, and keep your body language and expression either neutral or as interested as possible. Even if you feel frustrated or annoyed, don’t let it show.
  7. Answer questions as briefly as possible, then continue with your presentation. Avoid the temptation to talk too long, even if the tangent seems like an interesting one. Some participants will be frustrated you’re not following your outline and covering the ground you promised.
  8. If you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t make anything up. It’s perfectly acceptable to reply, “I don’t know,” or tell them you’ll look it up and send an answer later.
  9. If someone repeatedly interrupts with sincere questions, calmly explain you have a lot of ground to cover in a short time, and you’ll happily speak with them at length after your presentation.
  10. If someone keeps whispering or having distracting side conversations, either come off the stage and move toward that person, still talking; or stop speaking, look at the person pointedly, and ask if there’s a question or something they’d like to share.

Hecklers represent a special case. In addition to the above, remember these points when dealing with people deliberately trying to cause trouble:

  • Try to use humor to defuse the situation. A lighthearted, witty retort works better than losing your temper or refusing to answer.
  • If presented with a confrontational question, try to restate it in a neutral fashion before responding. Begin by saying something such as, “What I hear you asking is...”
  • Demonstrate by your measured response that you refuse to let the heckler intimidate you.
  • Stick to your guns. Don’t let anyone divert you, make you look uncertain or clueless, or steal the show.

No matter what happens, maintain your composure; always remain calm, pleasant, and polite. Neither sarcasm nor disdain should ever color your response to any interruption. Don’t let a questioner or interrupter get your goat, and never lose your temper or try to humiliate your opponent; by doing so, you risk alienating the audience and destroying your credibility. Without credibility, you have nothing—and the audience won’t remember your message for long.

On the other hand, try not to seem too detached or lacking in conviction; no one takes a wishy-washy message seriously. Obviously, you must to walk a careful emotional tightrope here, taking everyone’s emotions into account (including your own) while keeping the facts on your side.

All this said, remember: The audience expects you to maintain control of the presentation. So make your best effort to do so—gently and politely, but firmly.

Laura Stack has consulted with Fortune 500 corporations for nearly 20 years in the field of personal productivity and is the best-selling author of several books, including “Supercompetent.” She is a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP) and the 2011-2012 president of the National Speakers Association (NSA). Stack’s productivity-improvement programs have been used worldwide at companies such as Starbucks, Wal-Mart, Cisco Systems, and Bank of America. She is the creator of The Productivity Pro planner by Day-Timer. For more information, visit www.TheProductivityPro.comor www.NSAspeaker.org.

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