10 Dynamics for Dealing with Disruptive Audience Members

By Dianna Booher

No matter how eloquent your delivery or how riveting your content, from time to time you will have to deal with disruptive audience members—those who arrive late, leave early, carry on side conversations with their teammates or disagree wholeheartedly. When that’s the case, try these tips and techniques for crowd control.

Side Conversations

Members of your audience may talk to each other for any number of reasons. Someone arrives late and asks a colleague for an update. Perhaps the customer’s technical representative wants to know where to find your diagrams in the printout. Or someone complains to a colleague that the room is too hot or cold.

If audience members’ energy is flagging, maybe they need a break. Or the person talking disagrees with you and wants others to know it. If you can determine the reason for a side conversation, you can handle it more appropriately.

Dynamic #1: Ignore Helpful Distractions

If someone explains something to a peer or “catches up” a late arriver and the conversation gives signs of coming to an end, try to ignore the distraction. In fact, the person engaged may be saving the larger group the distraction of a “replay” should the confused person ask you questions personally.

Dynamic #2: Acknowledge the Body Language of Those Who Disagree

Many side conversations erupt from disagreement left to smolder under the surface. If audience members make it a point with their body language to tell you they disagree–obvious head wagging, disgusted shuffling in their seats, glancing around the room trying to catch others’ eyes–they are dangerously close to exploding verbally.

If the talker wants to express an opposing view, offer that opportunity or at least acknowledge that position: “I know that some of you have experiences and ideas to the contrary, and you’ll be welcome to express those at the end of the presentation.” Such comments remove the urge for these naysayers to begin their comments too early to those seated nearby.

Dynamic #3: Stroll Closer to the Talkers Without Looking at Them

If you can tell two people are simply catching up on corporate gossip or chatting about personal issues, stroll in their direction as you speak–but without looking at them specifically. As all eyes follow your movement and as your voice grows louder and louder in their ears, the talkers will soon feel all attention focused on them, a pressure tactic that usually stops such conversations.

Dynamic #4: Call for More Audience Involvement

If you suspect that your talkers have lost interest in your presentation, change your game plan and call for more audience involvement. Take an opinion poll on your current point and reflect on the results. A moment for input and open discussion from everyone generally will break up the small pockets of side conversations as they tune in to see what they are missing from their colleagues.


Never hold or stop your presentation to accommodate them or you will lose the rest of your group. Always start on time, letting latecomers ask others what they missed later. Otherwise, you will “train” your attendees that you do not mean what you say about the stop and start times. In fact, some organizations have “trained” their entire employee population not to take meeting start times or training class times seriously.

Dynamic #5: Use a Buffer If You Must

On certain occasions, you may decide to deviate from the start-on-time rule so that a key decision maker who is still out of the room does not miss an important point. A good technique for “having it both ways” is to begin the session on time but start with a buffer (such as cartoons or a humorous anecdote related to your point) so that the latecomer arrives in time to hear your “real” topic opening.

Dynamic #6: Use a Common Clock

When announcing a break, clearly state the restart time and point to the wall clock; this helps attendees remember the time better. Or rather than giving an exact time to return and confuse everyone whose watch is not synched with yours, state: “Please look at your watches. We’ll start the presentation again in 12 minutes.”

Dynamic #7: Remove the Dropout Zone

Having extra empty chairs at the back of the room for latecomers solves the distraction problem for the short term but prolongs it for the long term. Those who arrive late at the beginning or late after breaks can sit there and not traipse down front, distracting everyone in the middle of your presentation.

On the other hand, in the long run, others observe that latecomers are accommodated–that these extra chairs remain at the back and allow attendees to arrive late and leave early with minimal (they think) distraction. So as the session drags on, more and more people do just that–arrive late and take a seat in the dropout zone.

Hecklers in the Cheap Seats

Generally, hecklers who create a real distraction gain the hostility of the group and provoke sympathy for you.

Dynamic #8: Move Physically Closer to Them Before Your Session Begins

Your tendency may be to do the opposite. Making direct eye contact, approaching them, and courteously asking why they are protesting your presentation may defuse their hostility. At the least, your sincere approach will decrease the probability that they will be rude to you personally–even if they never consider changing their views.

Dynamic #9: Move Away from Them After Your Session Begins

If the hecklers are to the side or otherwise visible to the audience, casually move in the opposite direction so that the eyes of the audience members will follow you, and the hecklers will drop out of their line of vision.

Dynamic #10: Unmask Them

If you are expecting a hostile audience and protocol dictates that you must allow them the floor, you can always ask attendees for their names, titles, and organizational affiliations at the beginning of the presentation. Having lost their anonymity and chancing repercussions from their organization or embarrassment for their family, they are often hesitant to express their hostility openly.

You typically can end any dialogue with disruptive audience members with this comment: “There are individuals and groups who may see things very differently. I can accept that. I hope they can.” Then move on with your presentation in a dynamic way.

Never ask hecklers a question and give them the opportunity to state their views to the group or put you on the defensive.

About the Author:

Dianna Booher works with organizations to increase productivity and effectiveness through better communication: oral, written, interpersonal, and organizational. Her latest book is Creating Personal Presence: Look, Talk, Think, and Act Like a Leader. For more information visit www.booher.com

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