Dealing with Difficult Audiences
by Kirstin Carey

Oftentimes in speeches or presentations, there will be that person in the audience. You know, that person who seems to just like to cause trouble or hear himself talk. If you have that person in your audience, you don't have to call on him. As the speaker, you have to control the audience, and one of the best ways to deal with a pain-in-the-neck question-asker is simply to avoid calling on him.

I once attended a business meeting where a speaker poorly handled that person. Several times during the presentation, that person raised his hand to ask the speaker a question. Each time the speaker called on that person, he asked a long-winded, difficult, or inappropriate question. In fact, one time he simply made a statement. Though the audience was clearly uncomfortable and annoyed when that person was called on, and the speaker was noticeably losing her composure, she continued to call on that person and stumble though strained answers to his awful questions.

This is an example of a speaker giving up control to an audience member unnecessarily. The speaker should have avoided calling on that person after his first inappropriate question. There is no rule that says the speaker has to acknowledge an audience member with a raised hand. The speaker has control of who is called on and should not give up that control to difficult audience members.

The speaker had several options for controlling this audience member:

Ignore

The speaker could have simply chosen not to call on that person ("Just ignore him, Kirstin," my mother would say when I was younger and the boys were teasing me. Hmmm… another one of those lessons we learn as children that we should remember to use as adults.)

Set Limits

The speaker could have said, "For the sake of time and to make sure that everyone has at least one opportunity to ask a question, please limit your questions to one per person."

Write Down Questions

The speaker could have said, "I notice that some of you have a lot of questions, but I will be unable to finish my presentation if we answer all of them. Please write down your questions on the back of your business card. Mary, could you please collect those questions and bring them to me? I will answer as many questions as I can at the end of the presentation if we have time left over."

Directly Address

The speaker could have said, "What is your name, sir? John? Well, John, I appreciate your enthusiasm and your comments, but since we only have a short period of time today to go though the scheduled material, would you mind holding the rest of your comments until the end of the presentation?" Or, "John, your interest in this subject is wonderful, although your comments are too detailed for this presentation. Could we address your concerns afterwards?" While asking that person these questions, be sure to nod your head up and down to encourage that person to also nod in agreement.

The bottom line is: you are the speaker and therefore the person in control. Don't let one audience member ruin it for everyone else. I'm not recommending that you handle that person rudely, but keep in mind that the rest of the audience probably recognizes that person is being that person and will have more respect for you if you handle the situation firmly and effectively. Hey, the audience doesn't want to listen to that person, either.


About Kirstin A. Carey

Kirstin Carey is President of Orange Tree Training & Speaking Group, Inc. and is a communications expert who trains and coaches professionals to improve their communication and presentation skills. She presents fun and content-filled programs, which train and educate CEOs, managers, trainers, and staff to perform more effectively in sales, marketing, customer service and training.

Kirstin has a BA in Speech Communications and has been speaking to audiences for over a decade. She has worked with clients such as AAMCO, Crozer-Keystone Health Systems, the International Trade Exchange, PennDOT, Merck Pharmaceuticals and Verizon.

 


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