How To Control A Dominant Audience Member

I recently conducted a presentation training workshop with five trainees.

After every point I made, one of the trainees—let’s call him Peter—would interject with a story, question, or opinion. At first, I welcomed his participation—his interjections were on topic and he had smart things to say. But he had far more of them than were appropriate to the format, and it quickly became clear that Peter was disrupting the flow of the session.

Worse, I watched as the other trainees started to disengage. It was easy to appreciate why they were getting the feeling that our training session was going to become a long day.

I tried to manage the dominant participant in a variety of ways—by (politely) cutting off his comments before they were finished, using body language cues to try to slow him down, and saying that our schedule was slipping and we’d need to hold questions until the end of the current section to catch up.

Nothing worked.
Dominant Man Back to Camera iStockPhoto PPT
It would be easy to attribute Peter’s actions to his ego or desire to hear himself speak; those two reasons certainly apply in many situations. But in this case, I chalked Peter’s behavior up to a lack of self-awareness (which may be the toughest situation to manage).

In these situations, the session leader needs to take a heavier hand. The other attendees want you to exercise your authority—and if you don’t, they may hold it against you. The key is to exercise that authority politely, if firmly, without ever disrespecting the audience member.

Option One: Shut The Questioner Down

The next time the participant begins talking again, you could jump in and say:

“I’m going to ask you to hold on for a moment, Peter, because I’d like to get a few new voices in here. What do you think, Paul?”

You can continue to do that numerous times until Peter (hopefully) gets the message, perhaps allowing him to make his point on occasion so you’re not shutting him down 100 percent of the time.

Option Two: Enlist The Participant As Your Ally

Another option I’ve used in the past is to compliment the participant during a break—but in such a manner that helps you achieve your purpose.

“You know, Peter, you’ve been great about participating in this session. I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but I’ve been having a tough time drawing out the other participants. Could you help me after the break? If we allow there to be silence in the room after I ask a question, one of them might feel compelled to speak up.”

What tricks and techniques have you used to control the “Peters” in your audience? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.