ways to deal with hostile audiences

Managing difficult behaviour in your audience

Perhaps you’ve experienced rude or difficult behaviour during your meetings, conferences or presentations. It’s not easy to deal with hostile audiences – those who are always looking at their phones, having side conversations, or people who really love the sound of their own voice and keep calling out ideas or asking inappropriate questions that don’t add to the outcomes for the group. What did you do at the time? Did it work? Do you know what to do to make sure you minimise the amount of energy you have to spend on managing the group and maximise positive results in all your meetings?   

Here are some tips for managing difficult behaviour:

Ban phones!  

Many of my clients who have come to the end of their tether regarding lack of attention from meeting participants place a basket near the door of their board room for mobile phones. When you walk in the door, your phone goes in the basket. You collect your phone on the way out.  It’s a simple and brilliant way to ensure people are not distracted by technology during meetings, so the meeting runs more smoothly, you’re more likely to find people listen and can make faster decisions. Everyone wins.


Ensure at all times that you maintain your 100% rapport. Don’t sound annoyed; if you do, you’ve lost your control. Remember, people are not their behaviour. So whilst the person’s behaviour might be seemingly ‘dysfunctional’, that doesn’t mean they are a dysfunctional person!

Turn to a friend  

In this technique you suggest to the audience that they each turn to the person next to them and discuss your key message or three things that are related to your subject. When you do this, it’s important that you give an example. And make sure you explain what you are asking the group to do in three different ways. This way they will be more likely to do what you are asking. Then, while the audience members are doing what you asked them to do, you can spend time attending to the people causing the disruption. Once you have addressed the disruption you can re-claim your space and debrief the task that you assigned to the rest of the group. By this time they will generally have forgotten there was a disruption in the first place!

Physical proximity 

Walk close to them without turning your head or eye contact in their direction. Remember never to face ‘front on’ to them. Your physical proximity is often enough to help people realise their interruptions are unwanted at this time.

Hand it over to the audience 

This is a version of ‘Turn to a Friend’. Use the energy of your audience and give permission to everyone to talk about something with the person next to them. For example: ‘OK everyone, please talk to the person next to you and find out their concerns about the project plan to date — you have two minutes.’ Having assumed control over the way the audience members go to the activity, you are now in a position to control the way in which they turn their attention back to you so that you can resume your presentation.

Happy Presenting!

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