I recently worked with a young professional who was preparing for a major presentation at his company’s annual retreat.
He came to our training session well prepared. Not only had he thought through his entire presentation, completed his PowerPoint slides, and drafted his handouts, but he had also practiced the speech aloud numerous times. He took this assignment seriously, and it showed.
But when he stood up to practice his speech, I tried to throw him off. The resulting conversation produced an “ah-ha!” moment for me.
Here’s what threw him off: I raised my hand to ask a question in middle of his introduction. That clearly flustered him. He stammered for a few moments, then regained his composure and said, “I’ll get to questions a little later.”
When he concluded his talk and we debriefed about that moment, he said, “It really threw me off when you interrupted me with a question.”
That word—interrupted—struck me like a lightning bolt. It offered me a fascinating insight into how he had approached his presentation (as a monologue), and it told me everything I needed to know about the hazards he had created for himself by practicing so diligently.
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Speakers who are operating on autopilot—”This is my speech, and I’m going to deliver it exactly this way in front of my audience”—aren’t truly in the moment. They greet audience questions as “interruptions” instead of as valuable opportunities to answer queries, correct misinformation, and address objections.
They aren’t reacting in real time to what they’re experiencing, but rather they’re continuing to pretend they’re practicing in front of their less communicative mirrors.
Of course, there are times when a speaker might want to hold audience questions to the end of the presentation or until the topic will be addressed. But that’s different from viewing those questions as “interruptions.”
If anything, questions you hear earlier in your presentation give you an opportunity to alter the way you speak about certain ideas as you press forward. So learn from his mistake. Re-label the phrase “audience interruption” as “audience insight.”
Brad Phillips is the president of Phillips Media Relations, which specializes in media and presentation training. He tweets @MrMediaTraining and blogs at Mr. Media Training, where a version of this story first appeared.