An Elephant in the Room – No. 3 – Avoiding Unacceptable Behaviour in Presentations

The techniques discussed in this article can also be applied to presentations & meetings; both internal & external.


David, A Senior Product Manager in a Multinational Pharmaceutical company, was giving a presentation to members of the Marketing Department and sales force. Halfway through his presentation, the door slammed open and one of the area sales managers noisily walked into the room and, totally ignoring David, proceeded to walk around the room greeting everyone in a loud voice and shaking hands / kissing all of the attendees and generally disrupting both the presenter, the presentation and the audience. David was absolutely astounded: he had never seen such a public display of bad manners or lack of respect before. His first impulse was to get angry, however, as he considers himself a leader of his team he decided to let it go… for the moment! He did, nevertheless, do something after the presentation. (See below)

The above scenario is our first example of unacceptable behaviour in Presentations & Meetings which indicate a lack of respect for the presenter and the audience and an over-inflated sense of self-importance which can often be a subconscious sign of psychological problems!

Other types of bad behaviour can include but are not limited to:

Problem 2: Using laptops / tablets / (smart)phones during the meeting.

While many people are now using laptops/iPads, etc., as a note-taking device, the use & manipulation of these gadgets (typing, swiping, etc.) can distract the other audience members from the contents of the presentation. Also, while the person is using the device they are not listening to the presenter which means that they may miss important information which could result in unnecessary questions later.

Problem 3: Parallel conversations.

These frequently occur when the presenter is reading text on the screen and NOT observing, & controlling, the audience. Parallel conversations happen when members of the audience are talking with the person sitting beside them The conversations are frequently off-topic and unrelated to the area under discussion. This type of activity distracts both the presenter and the audience and is another sign of a lack of respect for others.

Problem 4: The Presentation getting side-tracked.

This occurs when audience members use too much time discussing their own particular problems or trying to show their level of knowledge during the presentation which leads to the presentation getting side-tracked from the main topic under discussion. To resolve this problem requires the use of specific nan-management skills / techniques by the presenter / meeting leader.

In English we have a saying: “Prevention is better than Cure” so let’s see how to prevent this type of behaviour. I would like to propose the following techniques for resolving the four problems indicated above:

Recommended Solutions:

IN EVERY CASE, If you have a person who habitually behaves in an undesirable manner, talk to them face-to-face before the meeting and let them know how you expect them to behave from now on! Then… Always decide, and if necessary, agree the required “Norms of Behaviour” with the appropriate people in the organization, and then include them in the agenda of the presentation / meeting.

Problem 1: Disruptive entry into the presentation / meeting.

- Include the “Norms of Behaviour” in the Agenda.

- Post a notice on the door, in BIG letters, restating the norms indicated above and telling late arrivals what to do, For example:

“If you arrive late and wish to attend this presentation, please follow these instructions:

a. Enter quietly.

b. Do not interrupt the speaker or members of the audience.

c. Sit in one of the chairs located near the door.

d. Wait until the break to greet friends & colleagues.

e. Show respect for everyone in the room.

Thank you. You cooperation is appreciated.”

In the situation give above, After David finished his presentation he immediately called for a coffee break and then took the disruptive regional sales manager into a nearby office and told him how he felt about his behaviour, the effects it had on him and the audience and, more importantly, Exactly how he expected the sales manager to behave in future presentations. Remember, this is NOT a negotiation – it is an intervention to correct undesirable behaviour! Before returning to the presentation site, David ensured that the sales manager understood the change required and agreed to modify his behaviour in future.

Benefit of this technique:

If someone enters the room and interrupts the group, the presenter has every right to immediately cut short the interruption as the late-arrival has been instructed how to behave before entering the room and if he decides not to follow the instructions, it is a clear sign of lack of respect for the presenter & the group and should be dealt with IMMEDIATELY!

Problem 2: Using laptops / tablets / (smart)phones during the presentation / meeting.

As mentioned above, the use of these devices should be covered in the expected norms of behaviour indicated in the agenda. However, the presenter should also request, at the very beginning of the presentation, that these gadgets be turned off until the end of the presentation and the reasons why this instruction should be obeyed – Then look at the audience and wait for them to comply!

Benefit of this technique:

The audience know what is expected from them from the very beginning of the Communicative Activity and the reasons for compliance. It also indicates that the presenter is taking control of the presentation from the very start of the activity. When the audience comply, it is a sign that they have subconsciously recognized the power & authority of the Presenter. If someone resists or refuses, it is a sign that they are probably going to be problematic during the presentation and the presenter can prepare to deal with them appropriately!

Problem 3: Parallel conversations.

Always maintain orientation towards the group and work on the computer screen, NOT the projector screen. When the presenter reads the projector screen he has to turn his back on the audience which gives the members the opportunity to start talking to the person beside them, take out their mobile phones or iPads “unobserved”, etc.

Benefit of this technique: Increased psychological control.

Problem 4: Presentation getting side-tracked.

During the preface of the presentation tell the audience that questions will be answered at the end of the presentation, NEVER answer questions or ask for comments during the presentation as it leads to side-tracking. Remember that the presenter’s non-verbal communication is the key to maintaining control of the group.

Benefit of this technique: Increased psychological control.

Remember; Power is Given, Control is Taken.

Many presenters have a tendency to surrender their power to people in the audience because they wish to appear polite, educated, “understanding” and flexible in meeting the desires of the audience. However, this is frequently perceived as weakness and could be taken advantage of by audience member who have a hidden agenda!

It is essential that presenters & meeting leaders show that they expect, & demand, respect from the audience. If they do not respect themselves, how can they expect the audience to respect them? Assertiveness is vital, but NOT aggressiveness.

So… end the bad behaviour and become a LEADER!

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