I recently got a call from a guy who needed some immediate help getting prepared for his next presentation. He was new to public seminars and, as sometimes happens to inexperienced speakers, his audience took over the presentation.

Have you ever been there when this has happened? It starts out innocent enough with a person asking a question about something that is specific to what they have going on in their life or in their office. They or someone else asks a follow-up question and soon you’ve moved completely away from what you, the speaker, wanted to talk about.

The worst case scenario here is when one audience member continues to pull you off topic with personal inquiries. You can literally watch the other people in the auidence turn against you if you don’t handle this situation the right way. There’s nothing worse, than one person getting a completely customized seminar and the other 99 attendees feeling like they’ve gotten nothing useful.

As I explained to the guy on the phone, the right way to handle this is handle it before it becomes an issue. If you’ve been to one of my seminars, you’ve likely heard me say something to the effect of, “There is no such thing as a dumb question.” I may even have the audience repeat this after me, because I do want to encourage questions.

Then I will say something like this, “There is one caveat to this however, please make sure that your question relates to what we’re talking about. If you have an off topic question or a big issue in your life or at work, come talk to me after the seminar and I’ll point you in the right direction.”

This works like a charm. I cover this early in the day as part of my introduction and then if any question comes up that’s not on-topic or that is way to specific to be relevant to the entire group, I just tell the person that they’ve asked a great question and that this is one of those things best handled after the seminar.

I may or may not give more of a reason and I ask them to come see me after the seminar. Now I’m free to stay on-topic and the person who asked the question feels they have been taken care of.

If you’re worried about being swamped with questions after the seminar, don’t be. I’d say, 1 in 10 people actually stay after and ask their question. If it’s not important enough for them to give it some time after the seminar, then it certainly wasn’t important enough to use up valuable seminar time addressing it, was it?


John Ryan

Host of Key Conversations for Leaders Podcast, Executive Coach, Consultant, and Trainer

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