Public Speaking Techniques for Staying in Control: Effective Recovery From Interruptions

An aide comes in with a note. Someone’s cell phone rings repeatedly. A baby cries. Two people chatter. An audience member faints. The fire alarm goes off.

For many presenters who haven’t had public speaking training, interruptions like these destroy their concentration, the mood they have set, and their overall impact. How can you be the exception? By learning these public speaking techniques to stay in control. We have split the speech interruptions into two types: annoying and serious. They should, obviously, be handled differently.

Minor interruptions:

Control is key.

Whatever the situation, let the audience know that you are not only aware of it, but that you will handle it. When something unusual happens in a group situation, everyone becomes tense. There is an individual and group feeling that somebody should do something about it. You need to be that ‘somebody’.

First, acknowledge the interruption. Ask the aide who he/she is looking for. Tell the cell phone offender that while you all love his special ring, you’d appreciate him and everyone else turning off their phones. Also ask if he needs to leave to take the call. For the crying baby, you might make a joke about agreeing with the baby’s complaint because what you are discussing is a terrible situation, then invite the parent to take the child out for a stroll.

Gabbers in your audience are a special case, because you don’t know whether they are discussing last night’s hockey game or making fun of what you are saying. Depending upon your confidence level, you have a couple of options.

The most dramatic way of bringing attention to the situation is to stop dead. For a few seconds, the chatters will continue to chat and others will become very uncomfortable and probably stare at the offenders and back at you. You can then make some comment about “just checking to see who was actually presenting”.

While a tempting technique, this has enormous risk in that not only will the chatters probably dislike you for embarrassing them, but the rest of the audience may resent being made a part of the obvious reprimand. Still, if you have exhausted all other approaches and they keep on talking, you may want to resort to this public speaking technique.

Before you do, however, here are a couple of other options. The simplest is to look directly at the offenders and ask, “Do you have a question about what I just said?” In most cases, this will remind them that they should use their ears rather than their mouths. If it is a small group, you can walk over beside the chatters, stop and focus your comments at them. They will quickly get the point.

Interruptions with health or safety implications:

Control here is vital.

You are the person with the microphone and with the attention of the group. Use it.

It goes without saying that you will immediately stop your presentation and deal with the emergency. If it is a medical emergency and you are not a medical person, ask if there is a doctor or nurse in the audience. If there is, direct them to the person in distress. Also, ask the rest of the group to make room for both. If none is available, ask a specific person to call for an ambulance – otherwise, wait until the medical person determines the severity of the situation, then ask. If it is determined to be a minor incident, ask the people around the person in difficulty to lead him or her from the room.

If it is a safety issue, eg.) the fire alarm goes off, stay calm and encourage others to stay calm and leave the room in an orderly way (you should, before your speech, have checked out where they should go once they leave the room). Keep them moving quickly but orderly. You are the captain of the ship: you leave last!

OK, we’ve had all this excitement and now you have to finish your speech! How to start again?

After the medical emergency has cleared the room (and you have figured out what to drop from your presentation to fit the time loss), thank everyone for their support of the patient, give them a synopsis of his or her condition, and let them know you will still finish on time. Sadly, they may care more about that than about the person who had the problem. Now, tell them where you were in your talk and continue.

If it was a safety interruption, chances are you will have almost no time to complete your talk. If this is the case, make some comment about them being a supportive group with whom to share an emergency, and offer to post your presentation on a website so they can get the information. Then, leave them with a memorable thought, poem, etc. from your ever-present presentation ‘kit bag.’

Interruptions, whether major or minor, need not disrupt your presentation or shake your confidence. Use these public speaking techniques as part of your preparations, and you’ll be able to pull it together and save your speech

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