You’ve probably run into one of those people who treats audience participation as a chance to hold forth. They present a challenge for a speaker, don’t they?

This question arrived in my in-box from an HR expert:

“During my presentation, I paused to ask questions and opinions. I like getting some conversation going instead of me just standing up there preaching. The problem was one individual who would raise his hand in response to a question. But then he would go on and on and on, sharing his opinions with the group (who really didn’t care) and ‘lecturing’ everyone on how to handle certain situations.

 I had a hard time controlling him, which became obvious to everyone. Any tips you can share about how to engage with a group, but still control a rogue audience member?”

Some people avoid this kind of scenario by just giving a presentation, without any audience input. And that’s a legitimate choice, maybe the right one for you. I had one coach, a very successful speaker, whose attitude was: “They didn’t come to listen to some guy in the third row. They came to hear me. I’ll be the one doing the talking.”

On the other hand, my preference is always interaction. I think it makes my talk more interesting. I enjoy the exchange. I think most people listening like it too and learn from it.

If one person has a question or an idea, chances are others in the room share it. It’s good for all of us when that becomes part of the program.

I also feel confident about my ability to manage that participation. So how can you create that kind of confidence?

Establish command of the room from the beginning.

 Masterful speakers balance command of the room and connection with their audience—every talk is a dance between command and connection.

In terms of managing an over-talker, command is crucial, and you need to have it ahead of time. How do you make that happen?

  • Start your talk front and center. Firmly grounded, with both feet flat on the floor, hip-distance apart.
  • Pause for a moment before you begin to speak.
  • Breathe fully and deeply.
  • Go with a “cold open.” Start with something substantive as opposed to run-way phrases like “happy to be here,” “nice to be with you,” “we’re going to talk about blahblahblah.” Don’t waste your first precious seconds warming up—warm yourself up before you’re “on.”
  • You want your voice to come from your core, not just from your head. Breathing into your belly will give your voice more force; you need that for a powerful sound.
  • Use direct, strong language, avoiding words that make your message mushy. “Sorta,” “kind of,” “maybe” “a little,” “I just think” … that kind of verbiage softens your message.
  • Put a period at the end of your sentences, so they don’t sound like questions. A lilting up-speak will make you sound less sure of yourself, and less like the leader of the room.
  • Get comfortable with the Pause. Those brief moments of silence throughout your talk convey confidence and poise.

And be ready with Plan B.

 Even when you’re clearly the person running the show, every now and again there’s someone in the room who wants the spotlight on them.

They may disagree with what you’re saying and want to voice an alternate view. Or maybe they just like having the attention on them; given a chance to talk, they go on and on and on.

How do you handle them?

  • Of course, you look people in the eye when you call on them. When you have a sense that this is turning into a monologue, look away. Turn your attention to other people in the room. Some talkers will get the hint—your interest is elsewhere—and wind to a close.
  • If you’re moving around the room, you might walk toward the person who’s gone on too long, stand near them and face others in the audience. Again, this is a physical signal that their time is up.
  • You may need to interrupt them—it’s smoother to do this when they pause, however briefly.

Phrases you can use:

    • “Thanks. We’re going to give somebody else a chance now.”
    • “In the interest of ending on time, I’m going to ask you to wrap it up.”
    • “You’ve obviously had a lot of experience. Thanks for sharing it with us.”
    • “We need to move on; if you want to talk more about this, come chat with me after the session.

You’ll need a strong voice, no matter what language you use, so remember to stay grounded and centered.

  • Try calling on two people at once. “Jack, you have something to add … and then we’ll go to Lisa.” Many people, when they already know someone else is in line to speak, will edit themselves a bit.
  • Say it with a smile. You might feel irritated with the person who loves to hear themselves talk. (You wouldn’t be the only one.) Don’t let it show.

As you manage a challenging audience member, the rest of the group is on your side—they don’t want to listen to all that, either. And, their sympathies will shift if they sense that you’re bullying the person.

Remember, in their mind, you’re the one with the power. Wield it with care. You want them to see that you’re not squelching someone, you’re looking out for the whole group.

Bottom line for my HR consultant friend, and for you:  You’re the captain of this ship. It’s your job to keep it sailing smoothly. You can do that when you take command at the start – and keep your Plan B techniques in your hip pocket, just in case.

Audience participation time! Maybe you’ve had an experience with a too-chatty participant. Maybe you’ve even been the one who talked too long.

Post a comment below and share your experience.