Cornell Professor Screams At Serial Yawner

You’re giving a speech to 220 students when someone in your classroom yawns rather loudly.

Do you ignore it?

Make a joke about it?

Appeal for courtesy?

If you’re Mark Talbert, senior lecturer at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Management, you try a fourth option: Disrupt the class, lose control, and search for the offending yawner:

Losing control as a public speaker accomplishes only two things: It diminishes your reputation and unites the entire audience against you.

What should Mr. Talbert have done? Here are three ways to handle disruptions during a speech:

1. Ignore It: The yawn was obnoxious, and probably distracted a student or two for a few moments. But Talbert’s reaction created a much bigger distraction, almost certainly preventing students from absorbing the material he presented after the outburst.

2. Handle It With Humor: If the audience truly was distracted by the yawn, the professor could have quickly regained his audience’s focus with a quick display of good-natured humor, something like, “Wow, does anyone have a can of Red Bull for that guy? Okay, moving on.”

3. Ask for the Audience’s Help: Instead of losing control and uniting the class against him, Professor Talbert could have enhanced his reputation by soliciting the audience’s help. He could have waited until the end of class and said something like this:

“I’ve noticed that someone has yawned loudly during class over the past several weeks. It’s extremely distracting for me as a lecturer, and it’s not considerate of the rest of the class. Please don’t come to class next week if you can’t control your yawning. If you do come back to class and yawn again, I’d like to ask the rest of you to help me identify the person. You can do that anonymously, and it would help the entire class prevent unnecessary distractions. Thank you, and have a good afternoon.”

Instead, more than 310,000 people have already viewed this video. Worse for Mr. Talbert, it comes up as one of the top links on Google under “Mark Talbert Cornell.” That means his two-minute tantrum will be one of the first things future employers, partners, colleagues, and students see when they search for him.

You may be wondering why I chose to include a university lecturer on a media and presentation training blog that usually looks at public figures. Here’s why: In the age of social media, everyone is a potential public figure, and virtually anyone is a potential reporter. You’d be wise to behave in public as if you’re always being recorded.