The Word I Told One Speaker Never To Use Again
I recently worked with a young professional who was preparing for a major presentation at his company’s annual retreat.
He came to our training session well prepared. Not only had he thought through his entire presentation, completed his PowerPoint slides, and drafted his handouts, but he had also practiced the speech out loud numerous times. He took this assignment seriously, and it showed.
But when he stood up to practice his speech, I purposely tried to throw him off. And the resulting conversation produced an “A ha!” moment for me.
Here’s what threw him off: I raised my hand to ask a question in middle of his introduction. That clearly flustered him. He stammered for a few moments, then regained his composure and said, “I’ll get to questions a little later.”
When he concluded his talk and we debriefed about that moment, he said, “It really threw me off when you interrupted me with a question.” That word—interrupted—struck me like a lightning bolt. It offered me a fascinating insight into how he approached his presentation (as a monologue), and told me everything I needed to know about the hazards he had inadvertently created for himself by practicing so diligently.
Speakers who are operating on autopilot—”This is my speech and I’m going to deliver it exactly this way in front of my audience”—aren’t truly in the moment. They greet audience questions as “interruptions” instead of as valuable opportunities to answer queries, correct misinformation, and address objections. They aren’t reacting in real time to what they’re experiencing, but rather continuing to pretend they’re practicing in front of their less communicative mirrors.
Of course, there are times when a speaker might want to hold audience questions to the end of the presentation or until the topic will be addressed. But that’s different from viewing those questions as “interruptions.” If anything, questions you hear earlier in your presentation give you an opportunity to alter the way you speak about certain ideas as you press forward.
So learn from his mistake. Re-label the phrase “audience interruption” as “audience insight.”
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I view audience questions as opportunities; if someone is confused and needs to ask a question, there’s likely to be more like him/her out in the crowd.
That said, if I get a question in the middle of my introduction (less than a minute or so in), that I might view it more as an interruption. It’s a bit of bad form on the part of the audience member. (I get the reason you did it for training purposes but I might not be as harsh on your client’s reaction.)
Thanks for your comment. I take your point.
In this case, the speaker was giving instructions during his introduction (“I’m going to give you a paper with 20 items. Please circle the items that…”). I suspect it could have legitimately led to someone in the audience being confused.
But aside from that instance, I also understand how it feels like an “interruption” when someone asks a question in middle of an introduction. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t also bristle internally a bit at that unwelcome interjection. But I’ve trained myself to knock that thought right out of my mind when it happens, because I suspect the audience doesn’t love it either. And if I handle that “interruption” seamlessly right at the beginning of the talk, it sends a powerful message to the audience about my expertise as a speaker. Viewed through that prism, audience “interruptions” can be wonderful opportunities.
Finally, a note about my training style – Once a client gets comfortable, I want to extend their learning by preparing them for the unexpected. In all likelihood, no one would cut into his talk within the first minute. But like a batter taking swings with a “donut” (which makes the swing feel easier in the real game), I want speakers to be prepared to handle everything that happens in the room with a sense of grace.
Thanks, as always, for reading and adding a smart comment!
Very helpful idea, to treat interruptions as opportunity for insight.