Must we tolerate them?

Pushy Questionners Disrupt Presentations

by Conrad Weisert
March 17, 2013
© 2013 Information Disciplines, Inc.

A problem

We've all been at professional meetings where the speaker is repeatedly interrupted by the same audience member for questions that are extremely specialized, barely relevant to the topic, and of absolutely no interest to the rest of the audience. He (they're usually male) may have some real need for the information he seeks or, more likely, he just wants to display his own superior knowledge. Sometimes, the interruptions aren't even questions, just gratuitous observations.

Lecturers are often too patient with such interruptions, even launching into extended one-on-one responses that only serve to bore everyone else. I've seen otherwise well-prepared presenations get seriously sidetacked by such distractions, to the point where the speakers main points are obscured. In a misguided attempt to be polite to one interrupter, the lecturer has actually been discourteous to the whole audience.

Asking the audience to hold their questions until the end doesn't help. We've suffered through too many endless question periods, watching audience members drift away without a proper end to the session.

A solution

The speaker may silently regret that he didn't bring a water pistol, but the following usually works:

  1. During the presentation

    1. If someone asks a question that is irrelevant or too complicated to answer without disrupting the flow, just say: "See me after the session." Never go off on a private dialog that most of the audience won't understand.

    2. If the same person persists, repeat that invitation once or twice, less cordially. adding a comment about it's not being of interest to the group, and then just ignore him. The audience will be grateful.

    3. Respond to other questions appropriately.
  2. After the presentation

    The same advice applies, except that the program chair (or whoever introduced the speaker) should stand up and end the session as soon as the questions become uninteresting, leading applause for the speaker.

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Last modified April 15, 2013