handling challenging audience

Dear Lisa,

I make a lot of presentations, and my question is about handling difficult audience members. Clearly they vary. You can have someone who is completely disengaged, frowns, rolls their eyes, and is distracted by laptop/cellphone, or someone who is the smartest person in the room and is challenging constantly and taking the discussion on tangents. While I am interested in hearing the mechanics of what you would do in these situations, I am even more interested in the self-talk or mindset you need as a presenter not to sabotage yourself.

Thanks.  A Fellow Presenter

Dear Fellow,

I feel your pain! For those of us who present regularly, it still takes a solid combination of technique and self-talk to overcome the desire to simply shut down one’s tent and ride off into the sunset! Here are some of my go-to moves for some of the more troublesome types:

The Disengaged Do-Bee
This is the very busy, get-it-all-done multitasker who must have her phone within 6” of her wrist bone at all times and whose work is so very important that all emails and texts must be dealt with immediately. She’s not a bad person; in fact, when called upon to participate, she is always apologetic about being distracted. I have two problems with this behavior:

  1. It’s distracting and disrespectful to others, including me. When she picks up her phone to text, it’s very visible to others and sends a signal that whatever the rest of us are doing isn’t that;
  2. She mistakenly thinks it makes her look indispensable, but really it makes her look like she can’t manage her work or delegate effectively.

My tip: Approach this person on the first break and ask if there is a major issue dividing her attention, and if so, let her know that trying to do it in this setting is ineffective for everyone. Let her choose what to do next. If there’s no break and she is actively texting, head down, I gracefully walk over to where she is sitting and continue to conduct the class from there. (I always move around in my classes, so it’s not unusual that I would stand there.) She suddenly realizes that all eyes are on her and puts the phone away. My self-talk is “This is not about me or my materials; this is about a culture that rewards constant connection.”

The MIP (Most Important Person)
This person, by virtue of title, seniority or ego, knows he’s the most important person in the room and therefore has the right to do whatever he wants, including interrupting the speakers, going on a rant, or doing other non-related work (which basically signals that the topic or point of view is not worth his attention).

  • First problem: Speakers (and participants) prepare defensively. Rather than create their best message, they design and develop messages so as not to trigger the MIP. Ironically, these messages are less effective which triggers the MIP anyway.
  • Second problem: The MIP models behavior that is not very leaderly which can have a longer-term negative impact.
  • Third problem: Finally, the MIP’s example shuts down everyone else in the room and the group loses the opportunity to share and learn from each other.

As the facilitator, I remind myself that my job is to keep the discussion moving forward. I do my best to keep people engaged and vocal. I take the high road with the MIP and acknowledge his comments, and then I re-direct back to the main content. The MIP is tough on a facilitator because if he is a truly important person, you have to walk that fine line between respectfully pushing back and outright challenging him. My self-talk is usually “This is about him, not me. I’m a professional and I know what I’m doing.”

The Silent Sufferer (a.k.a. your eye-rolling judger)
This person clearly has a perspective that’s different from what I’m espousing, and they just can’t help but roll their eyes in desperation! Now, I welcome a good debate in any class or meeting I run. I love to hear different points of view and have learned a lot from participants who respectfully challenge. So, when I see their judging expression or hear their sighs of exasperation, I finish my point and say to everyone “I’d love to know what you all think.” And then I call on the eye-roller first, by name, to volunteer an opinion. This technique takes courage – you need to be ready for whatever they say and listen openly, hoping to learn. I actually love these moments in class. My self-talk is “Oh goodie! This is gonna be fun!”

The Class Clown
This person adds a little embellishment for everything you say, and they usually find one or two compatriots who appreciate their humor which only encourages them. Heck, I like a good laugh myself, but my problem with this person is that it’s hard to get the discussion refocused after each little interruption. I take this person aside on the break and ask them to be a little more judicial in their interruptions for my sake and theirs. I never ask them to stop completely because that makes me the stuffy bad guy. Usually, the class clown will cooperate. If/when they don’t stop I move my body so that I block them from the rest of the group (their audience) until I’m sure the attention is back where it belongs. I struggle sometimes to be patient with the clown who won’t stop clowning and then I lose my train of thought (which gives them even more airtime to fill with jokes) so my self-talk is “Breathe, smile, and re-focus.”

All these techniques work when you’re well prepared and you know you’re well prepared. The saboteurs win when you shortchange your prep because they’re tapping in to your insecurity. When you’re confident, you can withstand the challengers.

Was this helpful? I want to hear from you either way…honest!