Maybe this has happened to you. You take the stage. The slides are peeped and displayed. Your talk starts. The nervousness subsides and you’re getting into a good flow. Then, when you’re finally comfortable, someone just has to interrupt you. This has happened to me more times than I can count. It even happened recently, when someone in the crowd felt the need to correct me on the duration of a construction project. So what do you do? What’s the best way to handle interruptions? Let’s take a look.
Don’t Get Flustered
I know this is easier said than done, but you should know a few things, especially if this is your first time speaking:
- The rest of the room is on your side. They don’t want to see you get interrupted any more than you do.
- That won’t be the thing people remember from your talk.
- Some people are jerks. Don’t let them get under your skin.
Instead, just take a moment to react properly. Get a nice response together and then move on. Don’t let it define the rest of your talk.
When the person interrupted me, I responded that I was estimating and that his correction actually drives my point home better.
Kill them with kindness. You don’t want to get mad because it will define the rest of your talk. If you respond nicely, it will likely be the only time they interrupt. It will also show the audience that you’re a pro – you can handle it when things don’t go perfectly.
When it’s OK to not be Cool
That said, sometimes there are constant interrupters. These are the people who need to make sure everyone knows they already know what you’re talking about. I usually give folks 3 times before I feel the need to quite them down.
If this happens to you, remember what I said above – the crowd is on your side. I’ll generally respond with something like, “Sir if you’d like to come up and give the rest of my talk, by all means…” Each time I’ve had to do this, it has worked. No one likes to be embarrassed or called out.
Read the Room and the Interruptor
You can generally tell by tone how they want their comment to come across, unless the person is completely clueless. Let that dictate how you respond. I always try to start nice, but if it’s clear the person trying to undermine me, that’s when I turn to sarcasm, which feels nicer than just getting pissed off.
Note: This is definitely advice for small interruptions – the people who feel the need to throw in their 2 cents. If someone in your audience becomes obnoxious or disruptive, you should let an organizer or volunteer know.
How to Lower the Chances of Interruptions
In all honesty, those small interruptions are probably going to be questions or small comments, and the audience member might not be thinking. I try to start off my talks with a polite reminder to save questions and comments until the end: “Thanks for coming to my talk – I’m going to talk about X, and am happy to take questions and comments at the end.”
If you don’t say it then, you can do it if someone interrupts you, with something like, “Thanks for your question – I’ll address that and others at the end.”
Remember it Doesn’t Reflect You – it Reflects Them!
After that last talk, my friend who was in the audience told me I handled the interruption well and the guy came off like a jerk. The truth is that in the Computer Science (or tech) field, this is common because you run the risk of speaking to a bunch of know-it-alls. It happens to me because I do a lot of public speaking events and most of my talks are tech-based. Just remember that most, if not all, people at your talk came because they wanted to hear what you had to say, not the peanut gallery.
Have you been interrupted during one of your talks? How did you handle it? Let us know in the comments!
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