How To Handle Presentation Disruptions

Whether we like it or not, the worst can happen when giving a speech or important presentation, our body can behave in ways we really don’t want it to, and other people can also. As was the experience of our prime minister on her recent Tory Conference party speech when she was interrupted by not only her own coughing fit but also a heckler. So what do we do when the stars misalign, and coughs and heckles make an appearance? Here are some top presentation skills tips to help you find the silver linings or at least, lessen the disruption.

Before the speech


Make sure you have lozenges, tissues, water and cough syrup to hand, so if the cough appears, you have what you need to nip it in the bud.


Before the speech you should be lubricating your vocal chords by drinking plenty of room temperature water. This will moisten the vocal folds and prevent the throat from drying. Cough syrups and hot drinks are also good. Lemon and honey is a particularly effective cough combatant. The lemon will cut through the congestion and the anti-septic properties of honey will soothe your throat.


When your voice is tired or ragged is an absolute necessity. A simple yet effective exercise is to create an 'Ng' sound by saying “ing” and sustain it as you go up and down your vocal register. Notice when there is an almost 'crackling' sound and go over and around these with your voice. This will massage the vocal folds and help smooth out a croaky voice.


Highlight your speech, literally, get a highlighter pen, and mark all the key words and phrases that you want to make ‘pop’ for your audience. This means during the speech, because you know what these key phrases are, you will be putting the effort in to get these ideas into your listeners’ head, meaning this extra bit of intention, focus and energy will easily bypass the effects of a tired voice, and get you heard where it counts.

During the speech


If your voice is tired and strained, don’t feel like the only way to make impact is to talk in a loud voice – it isn’t. Instead you can lower your tone, speak slower and quieter, and double the intensity, drawing people in so they sit forward to be part of the intimate circle you are creating. It takes intention, and eye contact, and really connecting to the audience, but can be done with a large group of people and is a fantastic way to counter a strained voice and make impact.


When our voices are strained we have to use other means available to make impact with our ideas. Pauses are perfect for just this. Take a pause before key ideas and phrases to tell the audience you are about to say something of importance. A well used pause will add weight and impact without any vocal effort.


If you do find yourself coughing in the middle of a speech, accept that coughing fits happen. It is no reflection on your commitment, your integrity or skill as a communicator. Therefore do not let it take you down. Simply do what you can to help it pass, take the time you need, and let it be a blip in an otherwise great speech. If you handle it well people will forget about it and move on with you. If however you battle it out, then that it what they will ne watching. You, fighting with your cough, trying to speak, the cough winning… you get the picture. Not a pretty sight.


Don’t carry on as if its not happening. If you do this, the ‘story’ becomes the interaction between the interrupter and the interrupted pretending the interrupting is invisible. That little drama is going to be way more interesting than most speeches, so don’t try and compete – just nip the drama in the bud quickly. By acknowledging the interruption, responding and then moving on you can show that you are unscripted and adaptive. It also demonstrates a human element which is very important.

Remember, with any unforeseen circumstances that come up during a speech, as unwelcome as they feel, they can offer an opportunity to show another side of you, responsive or humble, gracious, witty, accepting, calm. So next time you are confronted with the ‘worst’ see if you can turn it round, and make it a time to connect even more with your audience. Letting them see more of who you really are. They will like you all the more for it.

Public speaking is daunting. For more tips on how to be confident in public speaking, click here.

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