18 Mar How to STOP the meeting saboteur!

meetings_bad_2-resized-600An excerpt from How to Present: the ultimate guide to presenting your ideas and influencing people using techniques that actually work (Wiley)

Have you ever found yourself sitting in the audience at a meeting or conference presentation wondering, ‘What credentials and experience does this speaker have?’ ‘What’s the agenda and scope of this meeting?’ ‘How long is this going for and will there be catering?’ or ‘When can I ask questions or raise my concerns and opinions?’


As a presenter, have you ever had people interrupt you during your meetings with unrelated questions that take you off track? Or have you experienced people having side conversations that disrupt the rest of the group and draw people’s attention away from you and your important message?

Some of the most common disruptions in business presentations are mobile phones ringing or people reading their text messages in what they think is a secretive way. (It makes me laugh that they believe you can’t see them doing it!) Actions such as these indicate that the person is at least somewhat disengaged from your presentation. These interruptions can be very annoying and off-putting, for both the presenter and the rest of the audience. They can even make us feel nervous as presenters, especially when we don’t know how to manage them or stop them happening in the first place.


Reducing disruptions and increasing people’s attention


Michelle says … “Most inappropriate audience behaviour occurs because of a lack of boundary setting. I believe that most inappropriate audience behaviour found in meetings, training courses and presentations occurs because the presenter did not state their expectations of the audience, the time, the subject matter and the event in general. When you don’t set the expectations or boundaries for your audience, they don’t know the scope, timeframe, logistics or anything about your experience or credentials. They are also not sure about what would be considered acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. As a result you can find yourself having to manage dysfunctional behaviour.”


It is very important to set the ground rules and boundaries for your audiences, so that your participants know all the details at the start, such as who you are, what your session is all about, what to expect and how to behave.

When you set the boundaries you will reduce disruptions, maintain order in your meetings and improve your audience’s ability to listen and ultimately change their behaviour. Essentially, you will better control and relax your audience. Boundary setting is otherwise known as framing.


Setting boundaries

I recommend you set some of the following boundaries or frames:

  • your name so they know how to address you
  • your role so they understand what you do
  • your job title so they know where you fit
  • your department if you come from inside the company so they understand which area you come from
  • your company if you come from outside the company so that the audience knows where you work
  • your credentials so they know why they should listen to you and believe you
  • how long the presentation will run for so they can manage their time
  • whether there will be breaks and refreshments so they can ensure their own comfort
  • an indication of the content so they know what you will be talking about
  • the scope of the presentation so they know what will not be discussed in this meeting or presentation – this is essential to ensure people don’t go off scope and start side conversations or sub-meetings
  • the agenda so they know what will be covered and the order in which you will deliver the message
  • mobile phone etiquette so disruptions are minimised
  • when people can ask questions so they can feel at ease about asking when they want to, or waiting until the end
  • whether there will be a test so they know how attentive they need to be!
  • style so they understand what is required of them. For example, will this be interactive today, or will you be delivering a slide presentation in the dark?
  • whether people should take notes or whether there will be a handout so they can manage their retention of knowledge.


Here is an example of some frames you might use in one of your presentations:


‘My name is Michelle Bowden. I am the director of Michelle Bowden Enterprises. In the past two decades as a presentation skills expert I have learned that anyone can be an exceptional presenter, no matter their personality or personal style. It’s just a matter of knowing what you are supposed to do to be exceptional and then practising it! So today I’ll be covering my top tips for exceptional presenting. This is going to be a highly interactive session, which means it would be excellent if you would please ask your questions throughout, and if you could switch your mobile to silent that would be wonderful for your colleagues.’


How many boundaries should you set?

The short answer is: as many as you need to, within reason of course. The number of boundaries you set depends entirely on your audience. When you conduct your audience analysis (chapter 2) you will be made aware (sometimes painfully aware!) of the potential areas of concern. These are the areas where people are potentially going to behave in a disruptive way and therefore need to be managed. So set as many boundaries as you need to for your audience to feel relaxed and so that you control the proceedings.



Luke works in a company where the staff members are expected to go to many meetings that do not directly relate to their roles. As a result they have started to bring their laptops along so they can do their real work during the meetings! Luke was so excited to learn about the importance of setting boundaries. He realised that if he doesn’t ask his audience to put their laptops away, they will have them open throughout his session. Now he knows to set the boundaries, people are wonderfully respectful and wouldn’t dream of having their laptops open on the boardroom table in his presentations and meetings. A win for everyone concerned!


Where do you set the boundaries?

It’s best to set boundaries for the meeting after you have built rapport. If in contrast you do it at the very start, which is where most people do it, then you may find that people won’t listen because they don’t actually feel connected to you or your rules yet. Build rapport with some pacing and leading at the very start, and then set the boundaries once you know people are on your page. What if you forget or choose not to set boundaries? If you don’t remember or choose not to set the boundaries, people will be left wondering ‘What’s going on?’ They will be distracted by their internal dialogue asking unanswered logistics questions such as ‘when can I ask questions?’ and ‘how long will this go for?’, and they may demonstrate undesirable behaviour such as becoming distracted by their mobile phone, starting up side conversations or interrupting you unnecessarily. When you do set boundaries, everyone in your audience knows you are credible. They know what to expect from the session and how they should behave for the meeting to be a success. This will lead to your audience feeling more relaxed and you’ll be better placed to maintain control. Which in turn means you are more likely to maximise the likelihood of achieving your desired outcomes. So try this because it definitely works! What if people flaunt your boundaries? Well this is definitely going to happen – so get used to the idea of it! If people break the rules once they are set, you can simply remind them respectfully. For example, “Thanks for your question Bob. In fact, your question is not in the scope of this meeting that we set at the start, so let’s schedule to add your points to our agenda for next month and discuss this at a later stage.”


More information?

For more information on how to present with confidence, clarity and influence please read How to Present: the ultimate guide to presenting your ideas and influencing people using techniques that actually work (Wiley).

Or consider attending Michelle’s public 2-day Persuasive Presentation Skills Masterclass.

Who is Michelle Bowden? Michelle Bowden is an authority on presentation & persuasion in business. Michelle is a CSP (the highest designation for speakers in the world), Founder of Speakers’ Club, co-creator of the PRSI (a world-first psychometric indicator that tests your persuasiveness at work), best selling internationally published author (Wiley), 8 x nominee for the prestigious Educator Award for Excellence, editor of How to Present magazine, producer of Michelle Bowden TV, and a regular commentator in print, radio and online media. Sign up for Michelle’s FREE How to Present magazine TODAY www.michellebowden.com.au