Example: How President Obama Responded to Disruptors at a Speech
A speech is not a one-sided performance in front of a blank wall. To be authentic, to be memorable and engaging, a speech must be more like a conversation with a group of new friends. This means you need to be making eye contact and watching your audience for feedback cues. And, as you develop mastery over public speaking, you will learn which cues to follow and which cues to ignore.
In most circumstances, your ideal audience situation will feature silence or natural backchanneling, alert posture, and attentive, direct eye contact with you. Your audience should mirror the same air of comfort, openness, and confidence that you are bringing as a speaker.
Naturally, positive cues to look for include not only alert posture and consistent eye contact, but also head nodding or shaking in conjunction with your points, smiling or laughing at your humor, or expressions of thoughtfulness or concern. The audience’s feedback, ideally, should match the intent of your message.
However, audience members may slouch, or not look at you as you speak. They may seem preoccupied with their phones, or they may even be listening to music. This may be communicating boredom or apathy about your message. How do you respond?
In some cases, audience members may express confusion, disagreement, disdain, or anger about your message. In confusion, they may adopt a questioning or flustered look, and may seem agitated or look at their peers. If in disagreement, they may express concern, or look doubtful. Disagreement or apathy may result in them expressing disdain for your message, and this may result in them laughing when you did not intend to be funny, or it may result in them disengaging or sometimes even disrupting your speech. Similar responses may occur if audience members feel anger about your message, and they may even get up and leave the room.
How do you respond?
- Always maintain an air of calm professionalism.
- Do not take anything personally. In fact, whenever you see apparent apathy or confusion in your audience, remember that you do not know everything about these people and why they are behaving this way. Do not assume negative causes at first. Sometimes expressions that seem doubtful or angry are based on other factors, such as unknown aspects of the speaking situation, or the audience’s cultural background.
- Prepare your speech well enough to be flexible.
- If you notice confusion, questioning, or boredom, be prepared to recast your points or rephrase your explanations. Be prepared to increase your emphasis if you feel your audience is not getting your main points.
- Be prepared to apologize, explain, or field questions.
- Sometimes you will make a mistake, or tell a joke badly, or offend audience members. The best response to such a situation is to acknowledge others’ points of view and acknowledge your own imperfection or limitations. Always be welcoming to constructive criticism, but be brief about it. Do not over-explain or attempt to walk back. Sometimes you have to just move on.
- Do not respond to emotional baiting, or reduce yourself to name calling or threats.
- Being a public speaker means that you are occupying a seat of power at that moment, and with power comes responsibility. Always represent the example of the kind of person who makes open and respectful communication possible.
- Assure your audience that they have been heard, and maintain an assertive stance.
- Use constructive responses, such as “I have heard your question and I will address it,” or “I see your thinking,” or “I recognize your feelings on this.”
- Do not respond to negativity with more of the same. Do not communicate a lack of caring or respect for dissenters.
- If someone is being highly disruptive, politely ask them to help you return the speaking situation to its previous level of decorum. If disruption persists, then politely give the disruptor options of later discussion or leaving the venue. But, if the disruptor is actively preventing everyone else in the space from achieving the goal of this speaking situation, and especially if the disruptor is making you or other audience members feel unsafe, then you may have to rely on the efforts of authority figures.
For the most part, however, such a scenario is highly unlikely. Remember what your primary goals are in the speaking situation: to convey a message and develop understanding, and, in most cases, to foster relationship. Fear of conflict or fear of negative feedback should not drive your decision making, and remember: A good speaker is a good listener, too.