questions of the greatest fears we face when speaking in front of a crowd are also one of its greatest rewards. Public speaking is a totally live event. And that means that anything can happen and just about anything could happen in the middle of your presentation. So to change your fear of the unexpected to another talent you have to handle interruptions, think ahead about what you will do if things come up and how you will get the crowd back on track with your outline to take them to the conclusion you want them to reach.
Depending on how you conduct your presentation and the type of gathering, questions, or objections from the audience could potentially take you off course. This is especially true if you really didn’t plan to have an open forum type of discussion. If you set out to do your talk as a speech, not a discussion and someone interrupts, the first thing to do is recognize the disrupter to assure the crowd you have the situation under control. Your audience comes to your talk with the confidence that you are in control of the room and you must maintain that control.
Now if the disrupting speaker is being difficult and clearly wants to disrupt the meeting that is when the organizers of the meeting should know to step in and remove that person. But many times the interruption could be very logical and politely put questions or need for clarification. A rule of thumb is if one person asks a question, that means that four or five in the crowd had that question in mind but did not have the courage to interrupt you. Sometimes the disruption may not even be audible. It might be just a hand in the air or a facial expression that is clearly communicating the need to interact with you.
Again, the more you can maintain composure and recognize the question and either answer it or divert it from your outline, the more confidence the crowd will have in you. Many times the question will either be easily answered from your materials. Don’t be afraid to say, "That is an outstanding question which is right here on my outline. So I will be answering that in a moment". When you do that, it gets a chuckle from the questioner and the crowd and you can continue on your path to finishing your talk just making sure you highlight the area of the outline that came up in the question.
Be prepared also for either a legitimate question that you do not have a ready answer for or for questions that don’t make any sense to what you are talking about at all. For both to simply recognize that the questions were a good question (even if it isn't) and state that you will do some research and get back to them later with that background information. That will usually quiet the disruptor down and let you get on with your program.
Questions are not the only thing that can go wrong. Something could break either on stage or in the crowd. A person could fall out of his or her chair. A bird could fly in through a window. The list of things that might happen goes on and on. Again as you did with questions that you didn't expect, maintaining composure and control is the key. The audience will actually key off of you as to whether to panic about the interruption or not. So if you keep your head and handle the disruption with humor and a sense of calm, that will put the audience in that mood too. The effects of the disruption will minimize immediately and because you communicated that you were in charge at all times, the audience will respond to your leadership and come back to you to hear the rest of what you have to say.
You can achieve a feeling of control and calm by thinking through how you will handle the unexpected before you even step up to give your talk. And because you actually expect the unexpected, you can capture strange things that happen to demonstrate your management of the time you have to speak to the crowd. If you do that, it will work to your advantage and the result will be an even better presentation than would have happened without the disruption.
By Paul W. Abernathy, CMECP®