Dealing with awkward audience members

Last week I taught a course about operating systems to a group of four people. Small class sizes are great as course participants get plenty of individual attention. But they may be intimidating for the presenter. Pupils have more opportunity to ask about their specific area of interest that may be beyond the scope of the course. Such questions may be outside the presenter’s area of expertise or require a long answer that is of no interest to everyone else. Even more intimidating was the level of experience within the class. Two of the participants had over a decade of experience in similar areas. I was worried they would be scrutinising everything I said, picking out little mistakes, and asking difficult questions.

This experience made me think about dealing with difficult or intimidating participants. There are three techniques you can use to ensure the smooth running of a course.

1. Don’t be intimidated

There is no reason to be intimidated. Everyone in the room has come to hear you speak, even the very experienced ones. From the outset there is an appreciation that you have specific knowledge that they do not. They are there to learn, not to make you feel uncomfortable or establish themselves as more knowledgeable than you.

2. “I don’t know”

One of the biggest fears of newbie presenters is that they’ll be asked a question they will not know the answer to. No one expects all questions to be immediately answerable, especially if they’re outside the scope if the course. Instead of trying to save face by giving an inadequate answer, admit you don’t know. Write the question down and look up the answer later. If the question requires a little bit more research then take the person’s email address and send them the answer later. Directions to the answer, such as a link to documentation, a book title or the email address of an expert may be just as useful as the answer itself.

3. Defer your answer

Question and answer sessions are an important part of any presentation. Unfortunately participants may ask a long series of questions that are of no benefit ot the rest of the class, or may want to discuss lengthy hypothetical scenarios.

In these cases I often see the rest of the class lose interest. It is unfair to the rest of the class to let these kind of questions go on too long. If individuals require a back-to-basics explanation or want to discuss something beyond the scope of the course then suggest that you take the question offline. Let the questioner know that you will carry give them a complete answer during a break or after the course. This way you can explain things in the required detail without boring everyone else. This has the added advantage that people may not want to discuss irrelevant material if it is going to eat into their break time.

Have you got any more tips for dealing with awkward audience members? Add them in the comments!

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3 Comments

  1. Martin
    Posted April 29, 2009 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    Very occasionally I come across someone who is asking an obscure question just to look clever. Ususally I just decide to give them what they want and say as earnestly as possible ‘that’s a very interesting [or even excellent/perceptive if I really have no idea] question. I’d not thought about it from that angle before… but perhaps others in the audience have? Any thoughts?’ to see if someone else is prepared to field the question. If there’s no response, then it’s just ‘ok, well perhaps that’s something we can talk more about in the break then’, as you suggest. A subtle way of saying ‘does anyone else in the room actually care what the answer to this is?’.

    So I guess I’m suggesting adding ‘deflect’ to your list alongside defer.

  2. Posted April 29, 2009 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    Martin, that’s a very interesting. I’d not thought about it from that angle before… but perhaps others readers have? Any thoughts?

    But seriously, that is a very insightful point. I’ve actually seen Simon Bucknall (previous GB and Ireland Public speaking champion) use something very similar (described in this post). Rather then attempting to answer a difficult/ambiguous question himself he asked for a show of hands for each side of the argument then asked members members of the audience and the original questioner to share their opinion.

    Thank you for commenting. It’s very much appreciated.

  3. Maureen
    Posted May 21, 2009 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    This is what I do in teaching. If a student asks me what something (a german word with strong accent) is in English and I don’t quite know then I ask if they can paraphrase it or find out from a classmate. Perhaps more suitable in a language lesson but still…could be relevant to this post or rather repeating what Martin said.

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