Take the 2-minute tour ×
The Workplace Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for members of the workforce navigating the professional setting. It's 100% free, no registration required.

When people give presentations in my company, other members interrupting the flow of the presentation with questions/discussions on minor points can make the presentation lose focus. Personally I find the interruptions frustrating when showing off my work as I can't always show everything I wanted to because of the questions/discussions coming up in the middle.

I am still quite junior in the office. I want to say something like, "So the demo should only take a few minutes, it's probably best that any questions wait until after so I don't get distracted and show everything that was intended", but I'm worried that it will come across as too firm a tone when speaking to my superiors.

How can I discourage interruptions to the flow of my presentation without offending senior management who has a culture of interjecting when they have a point to make?

share|improve this question
3  
Hey conor, and welcome to The Workplace! I think this has the heart of a great question, so I'm going to make a small edit to try to get you better answers. If you think I missed the point, or it can be improved, please feel free to make an edit of your own. Thanks in advance! –  jmac Mar 27 at 23:54
    
You cannot control the questions asked - but you can control your reaction to them. :-) –  Tomas Mar 28 at 14:54
5  
@Tomas: you can (and often should) control the timing of questions. 'Hold questions until the end' is very standard practice, esp. if time is short, or the audience experience levels differ greatly, or if there are multiple concepts being introduced, to prevent anticipating later slides, or for whatever reason if the presentation needs your uninterrupted flow of though, or frankly if most of the questions you expect are bullshit. –  smci Mar 28 at 15:56
3  
OP: If anything, your tone is too apologetic. Just a simple "So the demo should only take a few minutes, let's keep questions until after." and no need to justify yourself further. Better still is to give specific timeboxes, e.g. "The demo should take 15-20 minutes, let's hold questions until after, then we have 10 min for questions." This sets expectations for those people who are itching to get to Q&A. –  smci Mar 28 at 15:58
    
I tried to also tag this time-management since it is an important discipline to prevent 30min meetings becoming 2hr gabblefests (in the worst case). But that tag was rejected. It's also important to your image, assertiveness, poise, composure, credibility to learn to efficiently handle bullshitters, backstabbers, showoffs, bullies, contrarians, timewasters, sycophants and the rest of the zoo of corporate animals. –  smci Mar 28 at 16:13

7 Answers 7

up vote 25 down vote accepted

It's your presentation and you are entitled to run it in the way that you are most comfortable with.

It doesn't matter if you are junior to everyone - the presentation is your party, and you can cry if you want to :)

You are not being rude, you are being assertive and you are probably not even that if you preface your ground rule as a request with the word "please" prefacing it.

If you set the ground rule, everybody (or almost everybody) will comply with it - that's my experience after attending 500 presentations over the last two years.

If you don't set the ground rule, nobody in the audience knows what the ground rule is - they are not mind readers - you open yourself to the free-for-all you are experiencing at every one of your presentations :)

All it takes is one succinct sentence: "Please postpone your questions until after the presentation" That sentence can be re-iterated during the presentation to anyone who didn't get the message.

share|improve this answer
2  
Added to that, if questions are still being asked, there are graceful ways to postpone answering. First, you acknowledge the question (either by repeating it [which is in itself a good thing], or saying something like "Good question"), then you defer the answer to later with e.g. "Answering that right now will divert too much/we will go into much detail", but "I will answer it at the end", "Please remember to ask your question again when we're through", "Come back to me after the presentation so we can discuss this in detail" etc. –  Jan Doggen Mar 28 at 9:04
3  
Even when you're initial request to postpone questions does not get honored (people forget/become enthusiastic), you can still restate your request if you do it nicely: "Please people, I like your enthusiasm, but let's keep the question till last otherwise I can't show it to you completely" (note the subtle hint that it's in their interest to let you finish your presentation). –  Jan Doggen Mar 28 at 9:04
    
I am not good at being graceful :) Having said that, it's best to come up with the succinct sentence you want to use before the presentation and make sure that this is a sentence that you can use and re-use without having to explicitly think about it. Otherwise, your flow of thinking during the presentation could be disrupted :) –  Vietnhi Phuvanmail Mar 28 at 11:18
    
The standard sentence is 'Hold questions until the end [for the sake of time]'. Don't pose it as a request, or worse still launch into an explanation why, it comes across as too apologetic. –  smci Mar 28 at 16:17
    
smci: I agree - don't go around explaining the blindingly obvious :) –  Vietnhi Phuvanmail Mar 28 at 21:27

I recently did a presentation myself; I presented to our sales team who has the same reputation as your co-workers.

I found what worked for me was to lay out the presentation into 3 steps; a brief introduction, demonstration and then transition into questions. When giving an introduction people will naturally allow the speaker to have the floor, and by structuring that introduction in the right way you can manipulate the entire presentation - including the questions.

The Introduction

Keep the introduction short, short as possible. I used a slideshow and it only had 4 slides and 40 words. The slideshow shouldn't be the star, either; all the slideshow is meant to do is serve as a mental indicator that you aren't to be interrupted.

Some points the introduction should follow;

  • The introduction should not explain everything. It will simply lay out the points that will be explained.
  • Make the bullet points the focus of questions you'll want. Don't go into detail on your points either - just give the minimum information needed to comprehend the points.
  • Be brief, fast and concise. Keep it under 4-5 minutes. This gives you enough time to set up, but doesn't drag on so long that the peanut gallery begins chirping.
  • Introduce your introduction as... An introduction! Don't specifically say "no speaking", instead say something like "I'm excited to give a very brief introduction on something great, and I can't wait to show you...". By saying "no speaking" people get uneasy that a slog might be ahead - so just let them know you intend to be brief.

While counter-intuitive holding back information keeps it digestible, and when you do get questions later you'll find they'll closely follow the bullet points. Just because you put a bullet-point on a presentation saying you'll cover X doesn't mean it has to be scripted.

This actually manipulates the questions into the presentation; if you know questions are coming - make it the questions you want. Then you'll be prepared and in control during the demonstration.

The Demonstration

People expect demonstrations to take longer, and whether you want them or not questions WILL eventually come: so what you want to do is cover the main points in the demonstration very quickly so by the time people begin butting in with their inquiries you've already hit the marks you've aimed for. Keep this step under 3 minutes, and treat it like the introduction.

This isn't the time for detail yet. This is just showing your introduction again, but live.

If you can, have the areas of your demonstration ready in advance. Don't explain, just show, and keep any description down to sound-bytes. If you can, write a 'micro-narrative' which people will mentally follow, such as the path a user might take though a system: "This is the online store, simple, clean. The shopping cart, and here's the checkout page."

Don't rush this part though; even though you're moving quickly, you still need to keep it digestible. The main risk here is having someone in the room ask "can you go back?", which will kill all momentum and kick you into the main questions phase prematurely.

If you have particularly impatient audience members who ask questions, take the question but try to use it as a lead-in for the next part of the demo. If I were showing a shopping cart and my next stop was the checkout here's how I'd manage the following;

  • "This is our shopping cart."
  • "How do people get to it?"
  • "It's always available from the shopping cart icon [here], or you can get to it from our checkout page."
  • [proceed to shopping cart]

Try to have less than 4 targets you want to 'hit' during the presentation, and if you must add shortcuts that let you skip anything in the middle. Really widdle it down to what's most important to show. This also cuts down the number of targets you need to clear before 'forcing' the presentation forward if people ask questions or want to go back. If people are slowing you down on target 2 and you have 8 more things to show you won't make it. But if you're on target 2 and you're already halfway through it becomes much more manageable.

The Question Phase:

At this point, let the demonstration step back and take a more natural tone. Re-visit the earliest part of the demonstration, and intentionally slow down and begin re-treading what you've just gone over but leave massive openings for questions. The goal now is to smoothly transition from "demonstration" to "live Q&A".

If all goes well you've managed to fit an introduction and your main demonstration in under 7-8 minutes. Now you've probably wanted to go into waaay more detail on just about everything, and here's where the magic happens:

People will have questions! BUT! NOT! ANNOYING! QUESTIONS! If you structured your points well, you'll find people are asking questions to all the points you wanted to hit anyway. This will both be interactive, and you'll have almost scripted your audience in advance. You'll also look incredibly well prepared as you're literally continuing your initial presentation, but in a responsive manner.

Because you've covered the broad-brush stuff people won't ask nitpicky questions either; you'll find the questions people ask tend to be just one level of detail higher than what you've shown. If you go into super-detail people will ask super-detailed questions. If you keep it basic, people will ask the moderate questions in line with the points you wanted to hit.

In the end if there's other things you wanted to hit that weren't asked, you can always drop any last-second pointers as the presentation wraps up, after the questions have died down.

Personal Note:

When I used this format I was working with a group known to interrupt and de-rail presentations. I also couldn't handle a huge number of questions because the product I was presenting (a website) was completely broken and unfinished. This is compounded by the fact that if they saw how horribly unfinished it was we risked them losing interest and not selling it. Imagine presenting an online shopping cart... But there was no cart, no product pages, and only one "working" category.

That's where I was at.

By keeping back most of the detail the staff wound up focusing on the points I wanted to cover, and I was shocked that nobody realised they had never actually seen any real content. In the end they were surprisingly glued to the presentation.

share|improve this answer
3  
Sorry, this is too long to read. :-) Also headlines and structure should attract. If your presentation would be like this I wouldn't pay attention. Maximum brevity is a key whether it is a presentation or an answer on Q&A site :-) –  Tomas Mar 28 at 16:07
2  
Kver, seconding @Tomas, there is great material buried inside this answer, but it really needs to be trimmed 75%. Brevity seriously improves clarity. –  smci Mar 28 at 16:33

Three suggestions to minimize the interruptions from questions:

  1. Focus on the audience
  2. Create and practice your story
  3. Prepare responses to objections

Focus on the audience

How many times have you seen someone present something that goes like this:

  1. Let me introduce the topics of this presentation
  2. Here is my product
  3. Here are its features
  4. Any questions?

People are used to horrible one-sided presentations. They see a list of bullet points, shut off their brain, and when they can't tolerate the presentation anymore they start talking about something they care about. That's true regardless of whether or not you tell them to hold all questions until the end.

Don't do that. Talk about what your audience cares about:

  1. This is what you guys want to accomplish, am I right?
  2. Great, this is how you can accomplish it (with the thing I am presenting)
  3. Any questions?

If you are talking with your audience rather than at them, and you are talking about something that they care about, you will get far fewer interruptions because they will actually care about what you're saying since it matches what they want to ask about anyway.

Create and practice a story

Come up with a story that weaves together what the audience cares about, and how what you're presenting solves it. Make it flow. Do not toss together a bunch of things you want to talk about in an arbitrary order and expect it to work. It doesn't. You end up leaving questions hanging in the air between slides, and someone is going to ask them as a result.

Kver's answer explained this in great detail, so I suggest you read through that if you're creating a technical demo.

Once you have a good story that focuses on what the audience cares about and makes sense/flows from slide to slide, practice it. Get so good you don't need notes. Get so good you can adlib it. Get so good that a fire alarm could go off and you wouldn't miss a beat after it stopped. When someone is telling a good story, we listen, and we don't want to interrupt.

Prepare responses to objections

You may minimize the risk of answers due to audience boredom, and minimize the amount of good opportunities to interject a question, but there will always still be someone who asks one anyway. That's fine. Practice some responses.

If you will cover the answer in a little bit in your story:

Great question Alice, I'll answer that question in about two minutes when I'm discussing X. (after discussing X) Alice, does that answer the question you had?

Note: make sure you will actually answer the question, and you should know if you've created your story and practiced enough

If you won't cover the answer in your story, but think it's a good question

Nice catch Bob, to answer it correctly I think it's good to understand Y first. Do you mind if I come back to your question after we've covered Y?

Note: make sure that discussing Y will actually help answer the question

If you think the question is dumb/tangential/irrelevant

Thanks for the question Carolyn, let's discuss that together after I finish the presentation.

Note: actually discuss it after the presentation in a diplomatic manner

If you didn't prepare for that question and can't answer

You caught me Dave, I wasn't planning on covering that today. Let me ask you after the presentation some details on what you're looking for so I can put together an answer for you.

Note: actually discuss it after the presentation, and make sure that you've prepared to cover the major questions that will be asked

Just be aware that you can't deflect every question this way. If someone asks you the same question again after you try one of these responses, you will need to answer at least briefly and say, "We can go in to this in more depth after the end of the presentation, okay?"

share|improve this answer

From your quote it appears that they are interrupting you. In that case, it may help to plan a couple of Q&As at logical points throughout your presentation (e.g. right after your pro/cons analysis). At the start of your presentation, quickly go through the table of contents of the presentation so they will know what to expect. Defer any questions to the relevant points.

When discussions get lost in off-topic/minor details, these are useful tactics:

Ask someone else a question to bring the meeting back on track, e.g.

George, thank you for your comments on X. Jim, do you have any ideas on the implementation of Y?

Or simply cut them off:

X is not really within the scope of this proposal.

I have not yet worked out the [minor detail] of X and it not part of my presentation.

Preparing a good schedule is helpful in general - that is, if any attempt at going outside of the schedule gets cut off consistently.

share|improve this answer

This is one of the unpleasant situations in the presentation that can always happen and you must know how to handle it. We were taught to:

  • Express empathy. The asker possibly has some concern and is possibly afraid it will not be addressed, or is possibly afraid that the direction of your presentation should be different. Be with him and start expressing empathy by saying something like "I understand your concern" or "This is a very good point".

  • Let them specify vague objections. If the objection is too vague, like "This is of no use", always ask them and let them specify their objections in more detail. "Can you please be more specific? What you don't like on this proposal?"

  • Offer a solution. Assure the asker that his concern will be addressed. If you plan to speak about it, you can say "This is a good point, thank you! I will just show it on the next slide", and continue. Or, you can offer a solution and assure them that the question will be addressed during presentation: "Well, I just explained the material and now I am in the middle of technical part. Then we will come to schedule and address your question there. Would you agree if I finish the technical part first?" I bet no one will disagree :-)

    If the question is completely off-topic, you can say "This is a good note, I will come back to it at the end of the presentation."

  • Make them part of the presentation. Always try to make the problematic people think that it is also their presentation. You make the question part of your presentation, even if you didn't plan so - for example, you can refer to the question two slides after the question was asked: "Well, we used this solution for product A exactly because of your concern" and point at the person. Since that moment, the people refered will be on your side since it is not only yours but also their presentation. :-)

share|improve this answer

Say this at the beginning of the presentation:

"I'll provide an overview of the subject, present the subject, and will leave plenty of time for questions after the main presentation."

Keep these handy for use during the presentation:

"Excellent question, that will be addressed a few slides from here."

"Remind me to bring that back up during the question and answer period at the end."

"That's a great way to describe the problem that I'm attempting to solve."

"That's an interesting question which this solution doesn't attempt to solve, but I have some thoughts on it and would like to be involved in further discussions about it later."

"I can answer that, but it's tangential to this presentation. Maybe at the end of the question and answer period, or after the meeting."

"I hadn't considered that. Let's discuss it further during the question and answer period."

"I appreciate the suggestion."

Question you should address during the presentation include those that you already explained - it shows that either you didn't explain something clearly enough, or they weren't paying attention. Quickly answer the question, otherwise they may be left further behind and misunderstand the rest of the presentation.

share|improve this answer

Here's an oddball suggestion if none of these others work for you:

You could do it in the style of Pecha Kucha (Pecha Kucha on wikipedia)(or make up your own of similar design) where all the slides are timed so that if people interrupt it will literally derail the presentation (make sure they are informed of the format). That way, they will feel the social pressure to not ruin the presentation. This is presentation by performance so you will have to have the presentation well rehearsed.

Pecha Kucha is a format where you present almost entirely in pictures using 20 slides at 20 seconds a slide. The total presentation is 6:40 minutes long. You need to rehearse so you know what 'script' goes with which slide. It is also beneficial to have a group. I mentioned in a similar style because maybe your material doesn't fit onto 20 slides or maybe you don't have exactly 20 seconds per slide. The main point is, your presentation is well rehearsed, the slides are on a timer, the visual information is in pictures and the text based information is presented verbally.

You could also anticipate questions by getting one or more people from a similar role as your audience to review your presentation ahead of time and record their questions, then incorporate them into your presentation.

share|improve this answer
1  
Mind explaining a bit more? Use the edit button. I went to the linked site and didn't get anything useful. –  martin f Mar 28 at 23:43

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.