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The following situation has occurred several times with B (the same person, in the audience), A (a speaker, different from time to time), and C (the audience, mostly the same).

  • A is presenting some topic at a seminar
  • A presents some background material X
  • B interrupts, says something like "how many in C already know about X?" (suggesting that A should skip it).
  • C, who is generally quite annoyed with B, answer in some half-hearted way, usually letting A go on with the background material

I find the behavior of B rude (I can explain in more detail if this is disputed). If it is rude, then what is a good way to call it out? I will soon be A, and would like to deal with this in a light-hearted way but still sending a clear message.

EDIT: Thanks for the many comments, and sorry if I did not make the question clear enough from the outset. It turns out there are actually three questions: 1. Is B's behavior rude and underhanded? 2. If someone is rude and underhanded in this way during a presentation, should one call it out? 3. How to call out improper behavior / make it stop (in this particular case)? Given that the obvious methods (raised eyebrows, few answers from C, et.c.) have all failed.

baldPrussian gives good suggestions in his answer, but I don't think they work in my particular situation. The polling is seldom actually carried out, and I think little is lost in thinking of the polling requests as slinging insults or statements-of-superiority-of-B at the A. Of course the simplest thing is just to ignore B, but that feels wrong (in the same way lying feels wrong).

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    What is your roll in this situation? Are you presenting, or are you a member of the audience? – sphennings Mar 19 '18 at 17:25
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    What is the context? Are in a 6 person meeting in an office? Are you at concert with 5,000 people? Is it an executive meeting? An informal meeting? Also, do you really need to call B out? Is your goal to create drama? Are you in any way responsible for the interactions between A and B? Is the presentation being recorded for future use? Is the presentation for educational reasons, or perhaps a demonstration? – Clay07g Mar 19 '18 at 17:41
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    @sphennings and Clay07g : I will be person A. The audience is rather small, around 10 people. B has a higher position than other, and his general behavior suggests to me that he merely want to show off his knowledge. – arrowturnips Mar 19 '18 at 19:06
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    I guess my goal is to cause embarrassment for B. I wouldn't do this if this was the first time he did it. But indeed he does it on a very regular basis and seem not to get the signs from others that he is obstructing. – arrowturnips Mar 19 '18 at 19:08
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    @baldPrussian : even given my explanation for doing so? Of course, the ultimate goal is to not have the speakers A interrupted. – arrowturnips Mar 19 '18 at 20:07
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You're clearly annoyed by his interruptions. And from your story it seems some others are too. I leave it up to your judgment whether his behavior is actually rude.

You might want to consider his personality, why he behaves like he does, and whether he will actually change. The interruptions and showing off his knowledge is a dominant controlling management style to compensate for his insecurity. He probably wants to do his job the best he can. You can use this!

I'd call him out before the actual presentation. Preferably some days ahead. Ask him if he wants to sit down for a coffee. Then friendly ask him if he can refrain from interrupting, because it does not contribute to the quality of the presentation. It actually increases the duration of the presentation. If you can convince him he can do a better job he might be willing to adhere.

Good luck!

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Generally hecklers at a seminar are rare. When I help people speak publicly, I tell them a couple things: the audience wants to see you succeed, not fail; the audience hopes more than anything else that you won't be boring and will give you every chance to not be boring.

Unfortunately there are sometimes people at these who either don't understand the agenda or have their own. Maybe they want you to solve their problem. Maybe they want to demonstrate their mastery over the material. Maybe they want to get to the meat of the presentation and skip background material. And there's always one person who is just a jerk. Whatever the reason, there are some people who make seminars harder than they need to be. They're rare, but you do sometimes run into one.

As the presenter you set and control the agenda. At first, I'd just continue. Don't reward this behavior with attention; stick to your presentation. That sends a message that "this interruption isn't worth stopping for."

If that doesn't change things, then I'd start out with a simple, "We can come to questions at the end; I want to be sure that everyone has the same base to start from. Some may already know this; some will not. Please bear with me for a minute or two so we all can ensure everyone's starting from the same place."

The message here is "some people need this info. Please be quiet and let me continue."

That should quiet this person down. If they persist, then I'd suggest something like, "There's a lot to cover here. Let's not waste time focusing on this background information. I'm sure the other participants want to get to the main points of the presentation as well; your quiet participation would be greatly appreciated."

That says "we're getting there but you're interrupting, please be quiet".

Now let's assume that this person really insists on trying to run the show for you. By now you've ignored them and told them twice to be quiet. At this point, it's up to you to assert control. "The agenda was published, we knew what this was before the presentation. I need to ask you to stop interrupting. If you have questions about the content, we can meet afterward. If not, please stop taking value away from the other attendees" Now you send the message that you're growing tired of this and need to continue.

Now you've told him to stop. By now this behavior should be done. If not, then it's time to do one thing I learned from watching "The Office". Look the person squarely in the face and ask "Do I have your permission to continue?" If they get smart and say "No" then ramp it up. "Really? No? You want to decide for all these others that this presentation will stop?" If no change, then "I'm going to ask you to leave. Others are here for this and if you don't want to be here, then don't be here. Please leave." Almost never will you get to this stage. Generally the second reminder is enough.

As an audience member, if it's a small audience, I'd suggest merely state that, "I'm here to listen to what this person has to say. We can take polls afterward" and leave it at that.

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  • These are good suggestions. But I would like to address what I think is the main point more directly: it is not proper behavior to start a poll among the audience whether they find the presentation to be of interest at the very moment. The most direct thing would be to say just that, either as A or as part of C. But I think that would be too disruptive. Merely playing along as part of C seems to validate B's behavior (?). Despite more subtle hints, B has persisted with his polling. I would like to hammer home the point and not cause too much drama. – arrowturnips Mar 19 '18 at 20:43
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    I think this will address your question. B starts a poll, and you respond "we'll come to questions at the end". If he persists, then "let's not waste time on background". If he still persists, "Do I have your permission to continue?" It's not embarrassing but sends the message that you want to continue without this poll. Edit note: added last line for participant in small session. – baldPrussian Mar 19 '18 at 21:02
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    I don't think this works. I think saying "questions later, please" when B is asking everyone but A becomes strange. Also, if someone in the audience actually answers the poll it makes A uncomfortable in a very underhanded way. There is no space between B's poll request and the expectation of C to answer. What happens now is rather [poll request by B] [awkward silence, one or two answers from C] [A goes on] – arrowturnips Mar 19 '18 at 21:12
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    Let me put this easily. If B is determined to interrupt your presentation, he/she will do it and there's nothing you can do short of kidnapping person B and taping their mouth. If you are unable to let it go and continue your presentation (or have B removed), we cannot help you. In no way does doing your job validate a heckler. That's absurd. Every second you spend dealing with a heckler is another second you waste of the audience's time. – Clay07g Mar 19 '18 at 22:03
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You said B is in a higher position than the rest in a comment (if I understood that correct). Now, it really depends on the setting. B might be just trying to optimize the usage of time, because the seminar time is limited and the more time is spent with information that is already known to most, other content may be shortened.

I've often seen this in seminars where the professor would cut the speaker short when they veered off too far into background information or non-essential information, giving a brief summary of that and then tell the speaker to go on with the main topic. Yes, that was somewhat of an interruption, but typically to the benefit of all - as all where in fact busy but polite people - polite especially as they were on the same "power-level" as the speaker, while the professor had the authority to do this.

If your case is similar, then you may be able to avoid an interruption by keeping an eye on B. If he looks bored / like he wants to speak up, you may either cut the current topic short (if you are explaining background details/side information at that moment). Or you may simply ask the audience whether they know the key concepts you would optionally explain before you start doing so. If you find out they don't know you can establish a consensus before you dive into the topic that there is a requirement to do so. Hence B will have far less incentive to intervene. Otherwise you can skip that part or very briefly summarize it as a reminder.

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  • This is a good point. I have tried to determine others' (that is, C) attitude to B's behaviour (including people at the same level as B) and I have found no positive attitudes to his behavior, and several very negative ones. – arrowturnips Mar 20 '18 at 0:15
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It looks like B is renowned for this behaviour and C has repeatedly witnessed it and is fed up as well. If the two of you are peers or you're in a higher position, you can anticipate it with a comment at the beginning of your speech:

I'm sure that B will forgive me if I start my presentation with some background information. It's just five minutes, I promise!

You can add something like

I won't be offended if in these five minutes you'll check the mail on your phone. wink

The message is "Yes, we all know that you'll interrupt, just bear with it instead". If the audience agrees with you, you will also get some laughter that will reinforce the message. If you're not at the same or higher level of B, ask to the person presenting you (if it's possible) to do it.

If this approach is not feasible, I suggest you to postpone B's questions. I imagine they will raise their hand; you just keep on speaking, raising one open hand with the palm towards them for a few seconds. If necessary, repeat it. Finish your introduction and only then ask them about their questions. If they just start talking when you make a pause, just tell them "Questions afterwards, thanks". I'm aware that you will have to postpone all questions. That's OK: while all other questions will still be on topic, it will be hard for him to ask "I wanted to know how many people know about this topic" after you finished presenting it.

If you find it awkward to do it during the presentation, you can begin by saying

Please ask questions at the end of the presentation.

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A should look at the reactions of C and maybe especially B.

It is annoying to hear again and again the same background information. And typically many people in C are just too shy to say something, or they just don't care.

A good presenter A should watch out for signs that people in the audience get bored because of repetitions or for other reasons.

If A does a good job then probably B will not interrupt. If B still interrupts A can ask a question (directed at everyone) like: "Do you want to hear this?" or maybe ask B in front of everyone what he wants. A should be able to interpret the reactions of B and C.

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  • I question the idea that A's performance can keep B from interrupting. In my experience, people like B interrupt because they want to be heard and want to emphasize they have higher status than person A. – cactus_pardner Apr 12 '18 at 22:21
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    @cactus_pardner: Not all Bs are the same. I agree that some of them would always interrupt. But others do it only if A is boring and does not get to the point, etc. – user8838 Apr 12 '18 at 23:10

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