When People Are Talking While You Are Presenting

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I love to ask presenters about the adult behaviors that bother them most during professional development. One of the top replies is, “When people are talking and it’s not time to talk.”

Oh, yes. I agree. Audience talking can really impact a presentation, especially for the facilitator. Don’t we want to be able to focus and give our best? It can distract the participants. Often the people around the talker/s wish they would stop. Talking during the presentation can also shift the tone away from professionalism to something else.

But audience chatter is also a great source of information and brings up some important questions:

• Was there a norm set from the beginning? My norms list includes “equity in communication” and I explain this by saying, “I am going to keep you very active today. Sometimes we’ll share out whole group, sometimes small groups, sometimes partners. There will be times to listen and work independently and I’ll ask you to respect the learning styles of those around you who need voices off in order to concentrate.”

• Have you built in enough time for people to talk to each other throughout the presentation? If you haven’t, their talking may be a sign that they need to process before they can take in more information. Think about giving some opportunity to reflect for about every ten minutes of content.

• Did you start talking before everyone had transitioned from an activity? Transitioning adults back from fruitful conversations is very difficult. I have a very pleasant chime that I use. About 30 seconds is needed for a large group to wrap up. I also use a simple hand-up gesture to let folks know it’s time to come back together. Whatever I use for transition, I wait until the talking has stopped before I begin.

• Is there a more important conversation that needs to take place? Once a staff member received a text during my presentation that a teacher’s husband had been badly injured in an accident and was being rushed to the hospital. When the group began whispering, I offered up a turn and talk and then checked in with them. They stepped outside the room and to figure out how they’d help with meals and childcare. Two teachers left and the rest returned after about ten minutes and while still concerned were ready to participate again.

For the sake of conversation though, let’s say that you have set norms and you have built in time to talk and there isn’t a more important conversation needing to take place. This happened recently to two coaches I know. One coach said, “The staff had their video viewing forms, we’d established their watch-fors and when the video began, the group in the back–why is it always the group in the back?–starting talking. I moved closer to them using proximity and they kept talking. I waited to see if they’d stop and they didn’t.”

What did she do? She stopped the video and addressed it directly, “Since we’ve made a commitment to watch and learn from this video, I’m going to ask if you are talking to please stop. If you need to step out to continue a conversation please do that. I’m going to start the video from the beginning again.” The group stopped talking, picked up their forms and got back on task. The coach disliked being put in that position, but later some of the other teachers thanked her for her professionalism and addressing the norms.

Another coach said he had a group that was talking while we was reading a short picture book aloud to set context for the discussion about minilessons. He got to a natural stopping place and said, “I noticed there is some conversation while I’m reading so I’m going to pause here to give a short turn and talk. Then when we come back we’ll finish up the rest of the book.” When the turn and talk was over, everyone listened for the remainder of the book.

What is similar in both of these scenarios is that the coaches addressed the talking and in one case made an explicit request and the other gave an opportunity for an outlet. They didn’t call anyone out, embarrass, or “should” the group. They skillfully facilitated a group of adults to try to meet learning needs.

My motto is “stay curious” and I employ it often when people are talking while I’m presenting. I wonder what is going on in their personal and professional lives. There have been times that I’ve checked in with them later and my intuition that something challenging was happening was confirmed. I’m curious if I’ve set the appropriate tone and expectations. I wonder too how it’s affecting other people—maybe this is just a “me” thing. Each time I’ve addressed it, I’ve been glad that I did. It’s uncomfortable, but in the long run most people appreciate a facilitator that sets professional norms and creates a comfortable path to follow them.

What other strategies do you use when adults are talking during a listening time? Are there other professional development behaviors you’d like to see addressed on the blog as well?

8 thoughts on “When People Are Talking While You Are Presenting

  1. I am always courteous and upbeat during presentations. I often respond in the same way that I respond when children are talking when they should not be talking. Sometimes, I go to where the chatter is and continue the talk from there. This is not unusual since I tend to move around while I talk. Sometimes, I involve “talker” in some way: read aloud something on a slide, record notes on a flip chart. In a roomful of teachers, the “talkers” understand that they are being reined in. Since it is done in a respectful way, it is usually enough to curb the talking.

  2. As a teacher who has been in audiences when this type of discourteous behavior goes on, I can only say that I am glad you’ve stopped the session and called attention to it. I know it’s uncomfortable, but it’s always appreciated by the vast majority of us who are there to learn and improve our teaching practices.

  3. Heather, thank you SO much for these tips. When I first started as an administrator, I felt frustrated every second Tuesday of the month as I presented at my staff meeting. I looked out to see laptops open, nonstop whispering, texting, etc. I found some tricks, such as establishing norms and reminders that I’ll not waste their time, but I’ll definitely utilize some of your ideas to frontload the conversation.

    One trick I’ve found that works is humor. I utilize my best Southern drawl and pair it with a sweet purr: “Well, what a cryin’ shame. I must not be very interestin’, because ya’ll seem to find one another much more fascinating than listening to me!” I laugh like I mean it, and usually it works to get people re-focused.

  4. I know this comment is long past the date, but thought I’d share anyway. When I am presenting and teachers are talking, I pause, look down and wait until the talking stops. It usually just takes a couple of seconds for the talkers to realize that I am quiet. As soon as it is quiet, I put my head up, glance around the room, step into a new spot and begin presenting where I left off. Going to the new spots makes restarting fresh and the talkers usually don’t talk again when they should be listening.

  5. Heather, another strategy that can be used is one that I learned from my colleague. Prior, he was in the military and there he was taught call and response. To set a norm he explained the expectation to bring a group back to center. Participants learned that when the presenter called, “Ready to listen, the participants responded, “Ready to learn!” This call response would be repeated a few times then the presenter would have everyone’s attention. I have tried this many times and it really works. All sounds are off and their thinkers (brains) are on with this strategy. The room becomes completely quiet and the presenter can proceed without trying to compete with other voices. Try it!

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