How to handle interruptions

People don’t interrupt to steal the mic. They want to connect with what you’re saying. Learn to treat their actions as a gift.

An audience member raises their hand while asking a question
Interruptions can throw you off course. Learn to welcome them. Photo: Paul Clarke

What do you do when someone interrupts you?

Picture the scene. You’re in front of your team. Sharing a presentation that you’ve worked on for hours. You’re in full flow:

  • updating them on your latest project
  • explaining a complex topic
  • telling people what they need to know

And then someone raises their hand:

Hang on Jonathan, I thought we were going to…

What happens next?

Interruptions throw you off course

It breaks your flow. You thought you knew where you were going. But then something different happened. That you didn’t expect, or prepare for.

This can feel uncomfortable. Like you’ve been thrown off course. You might:

  • lose your composure
  • feel unsure about how to respond
  • struggle to go back to your presentation

It’s normal to react in this way. But I have good news. It doesn’t have to be like this.

Although they can be unpleasant to receive, interruptions are a gift. They give you information. And they help you to connect with your audience. To understand how, let’s talk about why people interrupt.

Why do people interrupt?

Consider two reasons why someone might interrupt you:

  1. to seize the mic, or stop your speaking “turn”
  2. to clarify what you’ve said, so that they understand

Here’s the problem. Most interruptions are type 2. But we react as if they’re type 1.

In other words, they’re breaking your flow so they can stay connected to what you’re saying. But you respond as if they’re trying to steal the mic.

When you’re up there in front of people, the pressure is on. Lots of eyes are looking at you. (Or your face is being broadcast to lots of computer screens.) You’re doing your best to share what you’ve prepared.

So when someone tries to stop you, it can feel like an attack. But hold up a moment. What if it’s the opposite?

All feedback is useful

How can I say that interruptions are a gift, when some of them are thoughtless or even rude? Because all feedback is useful. It may not be nice to hear. But it makes your communication more effective.

Let’s take an extreme example. What’s the absolute worst feedback you could receive in the middle of a talk? It could be something like:

I think you’re wrong and this talk is boring. Can we move on?

This tells you that one person doesn’t like what you’ve said. You haven’t connected with them. This helps you to decide whether to change course. For example, look around the room and notice how other people are reacting. Do they agree? Or do they seem angry with the heckler?

Or ask for a show of hands. “Who would like to move on? Who wants to hear me out?”

Take a more typical example. Imagine you’re reporting on your latest project. Six weeks of work, distilled into one tight slide deck. A manager butts in:

Jonathan, why are we focusing on <topic of your project>? I thought we agreed that <completely different topic> was more important?

This is infuriating to hear. I’m not denying that. But it’s useful information. It helps you understand how well you’re doing.

Your job: connect with the audience

Your job as a presenter isn’t to share what you prepared. (To do that, send an email or record a video.) Your job is to connect with an audience. To tell a story that’s easy to understand.

When someone interrupts you, it shows that you haven’t succeeded—yet. But you get another try. You can change your plan. In other words, by the time someone raises their hand, you’ve already failed. Your talk isn’t working as well as it could. Their intervention could help you to fix that.

Thank the heckler

When I think about the experiences that have made me a better coach, many involve negative feedback. To learn, I need to understand what’s not working. And why. Most of the time, this kind of feedback is blunt, even thoughtless. I don’t like hearing it. But in hindsight I feel grateful to the people who shared it with me.

In the same way, you can thank your heckler. Not because they were considerate (they weren’t.) Because they helped you to do a better job.

Which is worse?

  1. someone interrupting you in mid flow
  2. finishing your talk and getting no response at all

I’d choose the first one every time. If people aren’t enjoying what I’m saying, I want to know as soon as possible.

Be ready to throw away your plan

The best presenters don’t know exactly what they’re going to say before they stand up. They prepare and rehearse. But they wait until they meet the audience before making the decision. They improvise based on how people respond.

In the same way, don’t get too attached to your plan. Or your slide deck. If an interruption throws you off course, it might be difficult to continue where you left off. Why not throw away your plan instead?

Remember that you didn’t have all the information when you made your slides. Now you know more. Perhaps one of your assumptions was off. Or the audience needs something different. It’s OK to go off script.

Or take this further. Build in points in your talk where people can interrupt! Leave gaps. Ask the audience questions. Get them to discuss what they’ve heard in pairs and report back.

Before you know it, you’ll change your view of interruptions. You’ll welcome them. Even enjoy them! Because you realise that they make you a better presenter.

Want one-to-one support with presentations? Try communication coaching.