SpeakerNet News Compilations

Handling a Noisy or Chatty Audience

Liz Pearson

Page Sponsors
How to sponsor this page

I am a dietitian. There is one part in my seminar where I talk about the fat and calorie content of specific fast food meals. Almost without fail, when I get to this section, people in the audience begin to talk among themselves. It is not that they have lost interest in my presentation, but they are so amazed by some of the numbers that they want to talk about it with their neighbor. Do you have any tips or suggestions on how to prevent the talking from starting in the first place or how to handle if well once it does start? It really disrupts the flow of my presentation.

— Jim Cathcart

I think you have hit upon a strength rather than a problem when you generate a strong buzz among the attendees. Your topic is obviously fascinating and personally relevant enough that they want to talk about it. So let them!

Plan their talking into your presentation. Assume it will happen and allow for it.

Find out from them what they are talking about specifically, then structure that into a general question or three, and at that moment in your presentation, just say, "Now let’s talk about how this relates personally to you. Since you will be discussing this among yourselves, I’ll notify you when the discussion time is up and I’ll continue with the presentation. Let’s take X minutes and talk with your neighbors about xxxx,yyyy,zzzz." You can even debrief them by asking for insights, unanswered questions, etc. that others would be interested in.

This can become the highlight of your talk.

— Don Schmincke

Don’t stop it, use it. Speakers strive for audience participation methods. You’ve got one!

Just intro it as an exercise — something like "take a couple minutes to share with your neighbor any "aha’s" that just came up for you...." Then, bring them back and ask for a few audience sharings. This sets you up to segue into the next segment but now THEY are the ones that opened it. And you can link back to their responses as appropriate in the next segment.

— Linda Keith

Consider saying at the outset, "I know you’ll want to talk with your neighbor about some of these so help me out by only listening first so I can get through the list...then I’ll give you a few minutes to compare notes with your neighbor."

— Rebecca Morgan

Since you know this is a section that gets them talking, I would capitalize on that. I’d either have them pair up and give them 30 seconds to guess the amount of fat in a Big Mac, or get the group to respond, giving a prize (could be yummy, healthy food) for the first one to guess right.

My philosophy is to ride the horse in the direction it’s moving! And they are engaged, which is a very good thing!

— Don Varney

It absolutely can be unnerving and disrupting to your flow as a speaker. Having said that remember we are there for them. Also humor is just one way to get around it. Smiling and saying when you all are through let me know and I will give you even more impressive stats and information. Keep smiling. It is important never to harass or insult your audience but I have found a smile is truly worth a thousand words when getting control back. Have fun with it and you will be amazed at how quickly they respond.

— Kathy Reiffenstein

If they’re going to talk anyway, put yourself back in charge — plan an interlude where they can talk about the calories they didn’t realize were in what they’ve eaten! You will want to adjust the set-up to what you have to say so this will work. Say you will give them a discussion assignment, as soon as you’ve explained enough so they can do it. After your set-up, let them chat for 2-3 minutes in twos or threes, with a charge from you. Have the group discuss among themselves in 2’s and 3’s to identify the highest calorie meal they’ve had in the last week.

Then you take back center stage to find out the highest calorie meal in the room. You ask everyone who’s had a 1500 or more calorie meal (as a full-day amount) in the last week to stand, then go to 2000, 2500 calories, etc. until only one person is standing. Then ask the person to tell what the meal consisted of and how many calories it must have been. Then ask, "So — in 25 words or less — when will you be having this meal again ... and WHY?"

Make them answer, sure to generate chuckles. You could do something similar with the highest fat meal. If you do this smoothly and quickly, it will take about 5 minutes, and then they can settle as you go on from there.

— Diana Royce Smith

One way to manage the disruption might be to involve your audience before they start talking among themselves. For example, rather than giving them the calories and fat content, ask them to turn to their neighbor and "guess" what the numbers are for specific fast food meals. Then you could say something like...how many think x meal has 500 calories, raise your hand...how many think 750 (or whatever breaks are relative). This way the audience gets to interact with the information in a productive way, and will perhaps be more likely to "pay attention" when you tell them the real data. And remember, even though their talking is a bit disruptive, it shows that they are engaged with your presentation!

— Steve Hughes

I have similar trouble in my seminars (usually after a small group exercise). Here are three ideas to consider.

  1. Prepare them. As you introduce this "discussion-inducing" portion of your program, warn the audience that they’ll be tempted to discuss it with the folks around them, but that you want to honor their time and keep the presentation on track. This won’t eliminate the problem completely, but you’ll be clearly establishing your expectations for the audience up front. I always say maintain your leadership from the platform by setting the guidelines and your audience will be more likely to follow you. It’s the old adage "leave nothing to chance."
  2. Give in. If they’re going to chat about the subject no matter what, go ahead and let them talk among themselves for 2-5 minutes (assuming you have time set aside for this in your program). I liken your problem to what school teachers face during the first snow of the year. I say let the students "ooh" and "aah" at the window for a few minutes to satisfy some of their natural curiosity. Then, once they get it out of their system, they’ll be more willing to go back to their desks to continue with their schoolwork.
  3. Snap ’em out of it. Bring a hotel bellhop / lunch counter bell to the lectern and "ding" it several times in rapid succession. These bells make a fun (non-annoying) sound that quickly gets everyone’s attention. The instant the room goes silent after hearing the bell, jump in and say whatever you want to keep them on track.

— Kare Anderson

Turn this into an opportunity to bond people with each other around you and your topic. Example: set them up to talk, then to want to tell you something: "Now I’m going to give you some facts that will frankly shock you. (pause)

"In fact, I’ve discovered that most people have an unstoppable urge to talk about these facts right after they hear them. (pause)

"So I know I can’t stop you (smiling by the way now) so I just ask you, after you hear what I’m going to tell you turn these facts into a positive opportunity to change your life, starting today. (pause)

"So, instead of expressing shock and dismay, I want you to turn to a person nearly you, hopefully the most normal-acting and tell that person one specific thing you are going to do differently since you’ve received this news.

"Ready? Ok. Here goes.... here’s the facts that you are going to use make your life better. .... (now say each one as a flat, short statement... building up to the most surprising."

Then say, "Now turn and tell that person what YOU are going to do differently."

— Harriet Meyerson

Since they want to talk anyway, divide them into groups of 5-7 people and give each group the nutritional information from one fast food meal. Give them specific things to look for or discover about the meal. Let them discuss it and then each group can select a spokesman to report to the group what they discovered. That gives them a hands on experience, gives them the opportunity to chat, and then they will listen more attentively to their co-participants when they speak. (If you have a very large group, you may want to have the spokesman use a mike.)

Or, you can have a quiz or game of some type for them to write the answers to, and the answers will be in your presentation so they will have to listen better.

— Steve Kaye

If people do something, it usually means that they want to do it. So, here’s an idea.

Go into this point by announcing that you have some info that everyone will want to talk about. So, you are going to let them do that. And first, they need to hear your instructions because you will ask them for their results afterwards. Then give part of your info.

And then launch a project that requires them to talk about it with some focus. For example, you could ask them to discuss how this have affected others in their lives. Or how it has affected them. Or how they will use the info to improve their lives. Or be creative, letting them guess the next points that you plan to make.

This sets them up to be the stars in your show.

— Beryl Shaw

I’d suggest your best way to stop this is to solicit feedback e.g. "How many calories do you think would be in --------?" Take a few responses. That way they’re talking to YOU not others.

Making your presentations interactive is always more inspiring and involving for audiences anyway. I hardly ever do just a straight "talk" without any interaction. When people point out that everyone was awake and aware and taking notice, I just respond with, "Yes. No one sleeps through MY presentations." Of course I smile when I say it and we laugh together.

— Rita M. Risser Chai

The best thing that can happen to you is people get interested and start talking about your talk! I would set it up. First I would show the list of foods and ask them to write down the number of calories they think they are. (You can tell them there will be a prize for the person who gets closest — the prize being your book). Then say, "I’m going to show you the real calories. Check your answers and then discuss with one or two people on either side of you and see who got the closest." Give them 1 minute, then ring a bell (I use meditation chimes) and ask, "How many of you were surprised by these numbers?"

"How many not surprised?" "I want you to add up the difference between what you guessed and the real numbers. "Who got the closest to guessing the number of calories?" This will make it so much more interesting for audience members and good for you, too.

— Betty Cooper

You see you have to set your listeners up to listen to you the way YOU want them to listen. And do right up front. It can be at the beginning of your presentation or when you get to this topic (or any other place where you want people to listen to you instead of each other). Say something like this: "I want to turn now to a diet area we all talk about all the time. As soon as I bring up the topic I know that’s what could happen here! You’ll want to talk about it with your neighbor. Before you do that I’d like to ask for your help. I have some basic information I want to share first: Then I’d like to open it up so we can all share our knowledge on this really important health topic. At time I really want you to ask questions or share your knowledge. Can we do that? Thanks." Then you tell them the topic; AND quickly start with a shocker right up front (such as "Do you know how many calories are in that Starbucks coffee you’re drinking in the morning while you’re trying to cut calories but cutting out a healthy breakfast?") or some other example.

— Bill Hodges

What I do when the audience buzzes is this, and I always keep a smile in my voice: "From the buzz in the room I can see that what I have said is so important to you that you find it hard to discuss it with your neighbor. But keep in mind that what I am about to discuss may be of even greater importance to you and if you are talking about what I said you will miss what I say."

I use variations of this and have been very successful.

— Paul Radde

Seems like a good thing frankly. Defer: Give them 3x5 cards to fill out with questions and comments. Refer to them at the beginning of your talk. Say, "I will be giving you some information that you will want to discuss and pose questions about. So, to make sure we cover your concerns, please fill out the 3x5 card with your comments and questions. We’ll get to them at the end of my presentation."

— Allan Hardman

How about building in a 5-minute moment for them to share with each other about their amazement. That way it goes with their flow instead of "interrupting" you. You get to relax, listen to what some of them are saying, and use that for the next part of your talk.

— Lisa Braithwaite

I don’t know how much time you have in your presentation, but I suggest turning this into an interactive activity to take advantage of the fact that your audience wants to talk.

Break them into small groups or have them partner with the person sitting next to them and give them a brief activity related to what you’re talking about. The activity could be something like having them calculate the calories they took in from fast food over the past week and share it within their group. Or give them a handout that has calorie and fat content from different fast food chain menus and have each group come up with the healthiest meal they can put together in five minutes. I’m sure you can think of better ideas, but you see where I’m going with this.

The fact that your audience gets excited and wants to talk during this portion of your presentation means they’re engaged. I would take advantage of their interest and not try to squash it.

— Doug Rice

You said this was a seminar, not a keynote or other speech, so why not go with it? They need to process the information somehow and you appear to have plenty of evidence that the preferred method is to discuss it with others, so make it a part of the seminar. Either break them into groups or just have them talk with their neighbors for a few minutes. Then bring them back to you by asking for feedback about their discussion. Doesn’t need to take very long and you can probably make some key points about it. For some this will show your in tune with the needs of the audience, and at least your not fighting it.

I don’t see why this has to be a negative that is stopped. If that is what most of them feel the need to do, go with it and use it to your advantage. After all, it’s about them. :-)

— Brian Walsh

Their interest makes this a perfect opportunity for a process. Here is how I would handle it. Tell them to listen carefully to the stats that you are about to give them, because you will be asking them to discuss these with partners. This will prevent them from spontaneously beginning on their own. When the time comes, say, "You will have one minute to share your thoughts on this. Find one or two partners to ..." I always say "one or two partners" to save time. Pairs often have leftover people, and it’s a hassle matching up the loners.

— Michael Lee

I’m sure you are going to get lots of great ideas about how to quiet an audience like, "Clap once if you can hear my voice, clap twice if you can hear my voice, clap three times if you can hear my voice," etc.

The point I wanted to make is that if your audiences always seem to want to talk amongst themselves at a certain point in your program LET THEM! Aren’t we there for our audiences??? Instead of being frustrated, why not build a five-minute discussion period at this point in your program. Audience members can introduce themselves to each other and discuss the issue at hand. It’s your choice whether you want to debrief or not but it will re-energize the whole room. This is particularly valuable in the afternoons following lunch or when there hasn’t been a lot of interaction previously. In other words, "Go with the flow!"

— Alan Campbell

In my other life as a teacher, I learned to not see situations like this not as a problem but as a suggestion that I change my presentation/teaching manner. Could you build this in as a timed discussion in terms of the most surprising information and have the participants give feedback?

— Mina Bancroft

I recommend playing to the comments. You’re supposed to get the audience worked up. This is a golden opportunity. Tell the audience up front that there are astounding numbers coming. Give them paper and pencil to write the numbers down...this will keep them quiet initially....then ask them to write the names of the people who also need to know about this health risk. Of course, have your name and access info on the paper.

Or tell them to give a "group gasp" as a joke before you start.... say you get so worked up about these risks, you might get fat and stressed just saying them. Then keep reeling off the numbers so peer pressure will keep people quiet. If they start talking anyway, channel that shock and noise into something constructive. "Telling your seat mate won’t help...who outside of this room needs to know this?" Ask them what they can do in their own school districts, homes, offices to get the word out. You might offer a chat room on your website for comments from people. End with a call to action that includes telling outsiders about what they have heard. Start a grass roots blog or petition to send to fast food chains or congress. You can then send them to your website for updates or use the comments made on evaluation sheets to compile a master list of suggestions which you send to any one who asks about it. Put their suggestions into a newsletter...all these will keep the audience coming back to contact with you which can lead to more business.

If your approach is not interactive, make it so. Allow time for them to break into small groups to brainstorm actions...then poll the groups for a master list. Capitalize on the emotion you have stirred.

— Dana Bristol-Smith

You’ve got a great opportunity here. Build an interactive exercise into your program here. Tell them to share with their neighbor — or put them in groups of 3 to answer your question. Something like this "What is your favorite fast food meal? How many calories do you think it has? How much fat, etc. Then once they have finished — give them your numbers. You can bring a bell or chime to use to get their attention back after the exercise. Have fun with this.

— Tom Lagana

Since you know that your groups like to talk with each other during this part of your presentation, how about making that a group exercise? That way your audience can talk together for several minutes, then a spokesperson from each small group can share. In the process, you may learn something. If your audiences are very large, the groups could still share among each other without a spokesperson.

— Debbie Fay

When they start talking, you stop talking. DO NOT try and shout over them. Simply stand there, nod and smile. Very quickly they will realize they are keeping you from continuing. You may even acknowledge their incredulity as you resume your speech. Something short like, "I know, incredible, isn’t it?" or "Scary stuff, I know. And what’s even more disturbing..." You get the idea. The good news is you are obviously talking about something of interest to your audience. Your confident silence will let them know you’re in control.

— Lynda Kavanagh

Put them into groups for discussion and have each group come up with one idea that they can do to change... something or have them discuss this in a relation to your speech. Have a little noise maker to bring them back to you. This really only needs to take up 10 minutes of your session but it also breaks up the "lecture." Chances are this is the part of the speech they will remember the most.

— George Torok

Don’t fight the trend. Instead take advantage of it. Use the energy. Just before you get to the point where you give the scary details, say this, "You are about to here some very scary numbers. Before I tell you this information quickly pick a scary number partner. Ok. You have your partner. Listen carefully to this information. Then when I say go — tell your partner the first thing that comes to your mind. Then let your partner speak. Discuss the significance. Do it quickly because you have 60 seconds. At the end of 60 seconds I will call time and ask to hear from a few of you."

— Kathy Lynn

I’d make the conversation part of your presentation. You could ask them group for examples and get a general total group thing going or have them speak at their tables with a specific question like "What is the last fast food you ate?" or some such discussion. The good news is that they are engaged and you can adjust your flow. Once they have spoken together, have a quick debrief and use that as your transition to your next material.

— Resli Costabell

Fantastic that you’ve got them energised and talking! It’s a blessing, not a curse.

I suggest you let them get it out of their systems. People learn more and remember more from talking it over themselves, than they learn from listening to us. (I still find this fact vaguely painful for the ego...) I might go with the flow by deadpanning, "Please take exactly 60 seconds to turn to the person next to you and express your shock and outrage. Ready, go!" Then I’d break eye contact and start staring at my stopwatch. I’d probably use body language to indicate, "yes, I really mean for you to talk now."

Or I might go with the flow by joining them in their emotional state. Step to one side, as if you’re part of the audience, and shout, "Holy Guacamole, Batman, those numbers are outrageous! I require 60 seconds to express my astonishment!" Then I’d step, hold up my stopwatch, and quietly say, "Go ahead and have a quick chat about these figures, with the person next to you. In fact, I’m feeling generous — instead of 60 seconds, take 61."

— Kelley Robertson

I have experienced something similar in one of my programs and have found that giving people time to discuss it has helped. Once they have had the opportunity to discuss the "numbers" they will be ready to pay attention again. It may be disruptive to you, but remember that your audience will benefit from it. Plus, it gets them involved which makes your presentation more interactive, more enjoyable, and more memorable. It may mean that you have to cut a portion of your presentation but I have found that less is more. To prevent the talking you can tell people up front that they may feel compelled to discuss the next topic. However, time doesn’t permit such a discussion. The drawback with this approach is that people may still talk during your presentation. The first approach is much more effective.

— Carol Pierce

Congratulations on grabbing your audience’s attention in ways that truly excite them!

Plan your presentation so a short period is allowed for audience interaction at those points which open themselves to people bursting at the seams to discuss those amazing facts you’ve just revealed. Your audience becomes even more involved and empowered, and you can then request pertinent feedback concerning their own conclusions about your comments. By letting your audience know how much time they have to interact and how they will know that time is up, you’re preparing them to become listeners at the appropriate time and "discussers" in their own right at the proper time...win/win for everyone...and an even more rewarding, more informative seminar all the way around.

As a former classroom teacher who now presents small and large group programs, this technique always results in even more valuable information being shared by everyone, not just by me as the professional who is their presenter.

— Nancy Stern

I think you are making a mistake by not listening to your customers...if the want to talk about this then why not create a three-minute exercise...talk to your partner about your reaction to this (or whatever) then ask for a couple of people to share with the whole group. We live in a world where listening only is a thing of the past...include interaction activities...audiences love it.

— Laurent Duperval

If you know your audience will chat at specific time, two things you can do:

  1. Precall it: "I am going to talk about something that will make all of you want to chat... right now! Please hold off a little bit until I have completed the section."
  2. Let them loose: prepare an exercise immediately following that section that will let them discuss it and share with their partners. And if you can, let them share with the whole audience what they learned or how they feel about the information you provided.

If you can combine the two, that would be even better.

— Andrew Sanderbeck

From the tone of your question "it really interrupts the flow of my presentation", I’m not sure that you see the gift that is being given to you. I would take that part of the material and turn it into an exercise. For example, put them into small groups and have them discuss and make a list of the fast foods that they like and or eat regularly. When they have their list completed. give them the information about caloric content and a calculator and let them add up their caloric totals. Ask them for feedback about their totals. Laugh with them, share their shock and amazement! Give calorie counters (or other prizes) to the groups with the biggest totals. Over the years I have learned that doing presentations is not about me talking and others listening...its about a shared experience. Fortunately, you have an audience that wants to share with you and others.

— Michael Podolinsky

Frankly, this is a non-problem and a real joy! Tell them just before this section that you are going to give them a chance to discuss it in a moment but just to please wait until it is all presented. Then put them in groups and give them just 5 minutes to ’buzz’ on it. Walk throughout the crowd and ask them for specific comments. OR, just ask them questions or for responses you can predict like, How many of you were most shocked about the Oriental chicken salad statistic? Who will no longer eat at McDonalds? What was the number one shock or ’ah ha’ in your group? Now they are responding to YOU and you have them back. The fact you let them talk wakes them up and they like you more and think you are a better ’speaker’. Statistically, if we don’t engagement with something like this be it a question or a group interaction every 10 minutes, their minds go on ’screen saver’. My mantra is, "The day of the ’talking head’ is dead." When you speak to the meeting planner afterward, commenting, "Wow... this group really got into the subject. Did you see they way they participated? Next time I speak, I’ve got something that will get them buzzing even more!"

— Alan Black

Audience talking....good thing or a bad thing. Consider turning that portion of your presentation into an AUDIENCE INVOLVEMENT exercise.

  1. Team them up in pairs, triads or small groups of 4 or 5 prior to covering that part of your presentation
  2. Explain that in 5 minutes or a set amount of time you will collect examples or samples of the points made in the pairs, triads, groups.

Have a device or process/procedure for getting their attention back that you have pre-told them you will use... bell, buzzer, raising of your hand. I have found that audiences want to get involved and they will talk about topics that really impact them. Award/reward things that are shared...prizes, stickers, applause, etc.

— Tom Justin

I’ve used a couple of techniques that have worked well. Actually more, but only a couple that I’m willing to admit. I’ll just stand center stage, looking out at the audience. If someone tries to engage me in conversation, I’ll just smile and wave them down with a nod. If I have a hand mic, I’ll simply lower it while I’m looking out at the audience. If there’s a stool, I’ll sit and watch quietly. After a short time, the audience realizes that nothing is going on on the stage, and when they see me standing, patiently, they usually get it. Things can quiet down fast. It takes patience, but it works. . .most of the time.

A couple times, right after an exercise, the group was excited, laughing and just wouldn’t settle. I began to hum into the mic, the Battle Hymn of The Republic. If you have a hand or podium mic, going right into it helps. When people finally settle, I tell them that song is appropriate, since we obviously have a Civil War going on. It gets a laugh.

I’ve done some other really wild things. They worked but I don’t or won’t recommend them for fear of being shunned by the entire community.

— Mari Smith

First, you say the chatter happens without fail. So, I would suggest building in a break or interactive activity right at that point. Actually encourage the chatter, rather than try to quell it. Perhaps a hand out with fast-food meals and the participants have to chat with their neighbor to guess the fat/calorie content. Maybe a contest for whoever guesses closest on a specific item. Something like this could work in only about 3 minutes or so and would be a nice energy boost to your talk. I usually find the room comes alive with interactive activities.

Second, you could preempt the chatter by saying every audience you speak to wants to talk at this point but you respectfully request they resist as it disrupts the important information you have to share.

Third, a technique that T. Harv Eker uses effectively to quiet noisy audiences is a simple "shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh." Keep doing it until there is quiet. This is most effective when you set up and maintain that context from the getgo — e.g. as soon as there is chatter, quietly say "shhh" and each time. The audience will get trained.

— Wendy Keller

There’s a place when I share dire statistics about getting a book published and what an agent sees in a typical month/year that always causes them to fall apart — talking, stunned, scribbling, whatever. I know the feeling. To regain control, I wait a few beats and let them quiet down — like a teacher would do in school — and then I ask them to raise their hand if they found it shocking....and to raise two if they found it TOTALLY SHOCKING! (I raise my voice for the second half of the question). Typically, because I am engaging them in every modality — auditory, kinesthetic, and visual — I get their full attention back.

SpeakerNet News is produced by Rebecca Morgan and Ken Braly. It is not affiliated with the National Speakers Association. Send comments or suggestions