Speaking in public… to an audience that isn’t listening

The well-known quotation from Mark Twain reads, “The human brain starts working the moment you are born and never stops until you stand up to speak in public.” For anyone who has stood up to do just that, you know there was never a truer word spoke.

But when it comes to public speaking, with the usual focus on overcoming nerves, engaging delivery, and Should I break the ice with a joke? we often overlook the fact that making a presentation is a two-way process. You communicate with them, they communicate with you. Where your communication might come in the form of a script and a PowerPoint slide deck, theirs comes in the form of questions (and possibly heckling, and even in extreme cases, walking out – it’s a form of feedback, I suppose, but not useful so let it go – focus on the audience in front of you).

That’s all fine when the audience’s contribution consists of rapt expressions and thoughtful-but-easy questions. But not all audiences are so supportive. What do you do when faced with deliberately difficult questions and disruptive behaviour, such as:

  • Whispering and side conversations
  • Asking questions with an aggressive tone of voice and/or words
  • Asking seemingly irrelevant questions
  • Introducing topics which try to alter the focus of the presentation
  • Answering mobile phones, messaging, etc.
  • Rustling papers (maybe documents, maybe sweet wrappers, either way…)
  • Questioning your authority or subject knowledge
  • Bored or otherwise disengaged body language that says, I’m here but I want to make it clear I don’t want to be.

First of all, remember who you are…

Take a moment to remind yourself that you’re in charge. No, really. Whether it feels like it or not, you’re in control: you’re the presenter, standing at the front of the room (maybe elevated on a stage), you are an authority figure. What you have on your side is people’s socially programmed predisposition do what they told by the person at the front of the ‘classroom’.

What’s more, you also have a safety net – your presentation script or notes means that you always know where you are. Whatever the distraction, you have a structure to return to.

Finally, you have a number of tactics you can try…

Possible responses to disruptive audience behaviour

  • Lay the groundwork from the start by agreeing some ground rules (use of phones, time for questions, etc.). Do so assertively and confidently and this will enhance your automatic authority.
  • With side conversations, politely ask for “one conversation at a time”, then deal with each in turn. (Though don’t make a big deal if they don’t want to share it with the whole audience (you’ve made your point, don’t rub it in by exposing their conversation about last night’s episode of…
  • Use a car park (Have a flipchart ready, labelled “Car Park”, then when tangents and side issues come up, rather than letting them distract everyone, suggest that they are ‘parked’: i.e. jot it down on a post-it and stick the post-it on the flipchart. Now you resume the presentation/main topic, but the tangent hasn’t been ignored; it will be dealt with later (possibly after the presentation).
  • If a question needs an answer but you don’t have one, a) refer it to the whole audience and facilitate a brief exchange of views (depends on the question, the time available, your facilitation skills, and any number of other factors); or b) be honest, admit you don’t know, and promise to find out (then later, do so!)
  • If things appear derailed (or in danger of becoming so) call a short break. This gives people time to take that ‘urgent call’ and come back better focused.
  • Silence can be powerful – if the ‘beast’ is getting out of control, stop feeding it. As they notice you’re no longer engaging, the audience’s attention comes back to you. Once you have it, get them back on topic.
  • Humour is also powerful but use with caution because when used in response to ‘difficult’ behaviour it’s easy to be perceived as shutting people down, or trivialising their question/comment.
  • Use the lever of time and money (theirs or yours) to suggest that their attention on the topic means less time wasted.


Of course, these tips are just the starting point, and the more public speaking and presentations you do, the more tactics and responses you’ll have based in your own experience. If you’d like to explore the issues around truly compelling public speaking and giving excellent presentations further, check out our popular Presentation Skills, TED-style programme – available as an in-house or open programme. Or give us a call on 01582 463460 – we’re here to help!

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