Presentation problems: 3 ways to take back the room when on stage

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Back in the fall, I was asked to speak at a full day conference in Vancouver. Little did I know that the speaking engagement would have me in both a teaching and learning capacity.

It wasn’t the first crowd I’d addressed, nor the largest. What it was, was an audience filled with professional engineers who were new to Canada. They were seeking guidance on how to transition their education and experience from their birth country to their new home country, Canada. They were searching for help in maintaining and growing their careers, and with blending into a new culture, professionally and socially.

I stepped to the front of the room, started my set and I felt flow. Words were rolling off my tongue and the entire room felt engaged, until an attendee near the back of the room raised their hand. When I called upon them, they spoke of their distaste for my presentation—citing their ways and rendering mine as emotional and unrelated.

I thanked the guest and told them I understood. But they carried on until I had to firmly, professionally and most importantly, graciously take back the room.

On that day I committed to practicing three things if ever in a situation where I have to professionally and graciously take the room as speaker and expert.

1. Respond, then get back on track

Whether you’re soliciting questions and conversations or not, there’s bound to be someone in the audience who wants to speak up. Welcome it, no matter the place it’s coming from.

In my experience, I was able to allow for the feedback from the audience member—I responded to it and got back on track.

They interrupted again with another opinion. Almost an accusation.

This time my tone changed. I responded to the comment then firmly explained that out of respect to the people who’d gone out of their way to attend the conference and the agenda that includes other speakers, I’d be happy to discuss after but for now keep to the agenda.

Direct. Professional. Done.

2. End the debate and recognize that opinions differ

When my presentation ended, I made my way to the auditorium where I mingled with attendees. I crossed paths with the person who’d made comments during my presentation.

As the conversation unraveled, it was obvious that our opinions were worlds apart. I listened, added my thoughts and when that rattled up more tension in the person, noted that our opinions differed and that that was okay.

What helped in this situation was taking a listener approach first, then with eye contact, stating a fact—opinions differ.

Correcting comments made from assumption but accepting differences while acknowledging expertise and good intentions. It’s tough to argue with that.

3. Choose to be gracious

When all else fails, as it did for me, I choose to follow step three—choose to be gracious. Not only is being gracious a personal value of mine, it never wears out.

If the conversation comes to an impossible impasse, choose to politely move on.

Don’t compare yourself to them (“Are they a better presenter? Are they more qualified?”); you’re the expert in the field you’ve spoken on. You were asked to present, or you solicited the opportunity and were given it. Own that.

Public speaking requires a great amount of vulnerability and confidence. Next time you’re on stage and you feel someone digging in, trying to claim your space remember to respond, end unproductive debates and choose to act with decorum.

Have you own presentation story to share? I’d love to hear it. Get in touch.

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