“An Elephant in the Room” # 2: The Hidden Dangers of Interrupting during Presentations.

In every company there are “Elephants in the Room” and  this article and the following ones that appear in this BLOG will deal with some of the most common ones.

In this article a PRESENTATION is defined as a short (15-20 minutes), unidirectional Communicative Activity dealing with concepts rather than excessive details and that goes from the presenter to the audience and does NOT involve questions/answers to or from the audience.
The traditional “Meeting with Slides” is a longer (40-120 minutes), more detail-focussed, multiidirectional, verbally participative Communicative Activity which includes questions/answers from audience members and presenter and frequently involve a detailed analysis of financial data using templates.

Maria, a highly qualified and experienced senior product manager, was making a presentation to a group of healthcare professionals who appeared interested and whos body language showed that they were mentally participating when, suddenly and without prior warning, her boss stood up and interrupted the presentation to “Clarify” something she had said. Maria, who was unprepared for his intervention, did not know what to do. Sit down near the presentation point? Stand there and twiddle her thumbs? Return to her seat? As her boss continued his intervention and even started answering questions from a participants which resulted in a dialogue which went away from the topic being discussed, he did not notice that he had lost overall control of the group…some people started checking their Blackberry, others started parallel conversations (talking with a neighbour), other participants sat back in their chairs and mentally disconnected from the presentation and one even took out his iPad and started working. When her manager finally stopped his intervention and returned the presentation to Maria it was extremely difficult for her to take the group back to the level of interest they had shown before the interruption. The climate of the meeting had changed… and not in a positive manner. In addition, because of his intervention, the presentation finished 30 minutes later than planned! After the meeting Maria was unhappy and felt a unmotivated, undervalued and that she had lost the respect of the audience.

If we investigate what happened, we discover:
Maria’s Perception:
–    She had dedicated days to preparing the presentation: structuring it logically, choosing the appropriate graphics, etc., and anticipating possible problems to avoid interruptions.

–    She had asked the audience to keep their comments and questions until the end of the presentation and this request had been ignored by her boss.

–     Her boss has set a precedent that the audience members could interrupt the presenter whenever they want to.

–     The interruption was unnecessary because she was about to clarify her comments. Her boss should not have incorrectly “Read her Mind” and he should have trusted her and waited before interrupting.

–    Her “Power, Professionalism & Knowledge” had been publicly questioned.

–    Her uncertainty about what to do when her boss started his intervention will be perceived by the audience as indecision and a lack of assertiveness which could effect how the audience respond to the contents of her presentation.

–     Her motivation will continue to decrease, especially if her boss has a habit of interrupting her and other team members and one possible solution for her might be to find another job where she is more appreciated!

–    The act of taking over her presentation indicates a lack of respect for the presenter which was communicated indirectly to the audience.

–    While her manager is speaking she is observing the group’s reaction and can see the effect he is having on them by their behaviour to which he is oblivious.

The Audience’s Perception:

–    Maria was doing an interesting & professional presentation so why interrupt DURING the presentation and not later?

–     Why start a dialogue and go off on a tangent?

–    If her boss had to interrupt to correct her, what else was she doing / saying that was incorrect? So how valid was her presentation?

–    If the audience and Maria had a good level of rapport, or similar interruptions had happened to them, their sympathies would go to Maria and their antagonism towards the boss.

–    With the manager’s intervention and his being sidetracked by questions, etc, the presentation was going to last a lot longer and effect the rest of the following presentations with all that that implied!

The Manager’s Perception:
Manager’s Rational for interrupting:

–     He did not want the audience to have “wrong” information and believes that it is better to make the correction immediately instead of later. This is actually incorrect!

–    He appears to believe that the audience remembers all the details instead of  “concepts”. Another error! The human brain generally  works with concepts: Ask someone about a film they have just see and the ususal response is a summary of the Key Points for the Speaker NOT small, specific details!

–     He wanted the audience to “participate” where, for him, “participate” means SPEAK / INTERACT with the presenter, whereas in a Presentation, the audience should ONLY participate MENTALLY! Think of the presentations you have attended: how many of them finish On-Time when the audience are interacting with the presenter? Not many!

–    He feels that as he is the Manager, he has the right to interrupt whenever he feels like it! How the Presenter & Audience feels, or perceive him, is unimportant.

–    By getting involved in a dialogue with a member of the audience he is trying to show that HE is flexible and responsive to the audience and he assumes that everyone else is interested in the dialogue which, quite often is untrue. Often, the fact that he is unaware of, or untrained in reading, the audience’s reaction is a factor that contributes to ineffective presentations.

As we can see from the different perceptions indicated above, there are a great many disadvantages FOR THE MANAGER in interrupting his team members during presentations.

While it is obvious that errors or incorrect information need to be rectified before the audience leave, during the presentation is NOT the ideal place.

A Practical Suggestion for the Manager:
Use the Primacy – Recency Effect:
The term Primacy & Recency Effects are used in psychology & sociology to describe the effect of the order of presentation of information or events on memory.

The Primacy Effect results in information presented at the beginning being better remembered than information presented later on and that people tend to remember the first time more than the repetitions.

The Recency Effect results in better recall of the most recent information or event.

Together, these two effects result in the earliest and latest information in any Communicative Activity (Presentations, Meetings, Negotiations, etc)  being remember better, with information given in the middle (such as a Manager’s intervention) being least remembered.

If the Manager makes his intervention AFTER the presentation is finished and BEFORE the presenter asks for questions, he is:

1.    Using psychology to make his intervention much more memorable in the minds of the audience.

2.    Allowing the presenter the opportunity to present all the information which may make his intervention unnecessary.

3.    Letting the presenter maintain her “Power, Professionalism & Knowledge” in front of the audience.

4.    Removing an important stressor for the presenter.

5.    Reducing the possibilities of getting side-tracked via question/answers & dialogues and helping maintain the presentation schedule.

6.    Maintaining / increasing the presenter’s motivation and helps to keep her from looking for another job.

7.    Allowing himself to observe the audience’s non-verbal behaviour which will indicate how they are reacting to the presentation.

9.    Removing most, or all, of the possible incorrect perceptions of the audience.

10.    Creates the perception of the Manager as a Leader!

11.    Shows respect for both the presenter & the Audience.

What The Presenter Can Do to Reduce the Risk of Interruption.
Any Presenter who has a Manager who habitually interrupts or takes over during presentations can also speak to him/her before their presentation, and if necessary, show them this article as a way to reach an agreement about the rules of behaviour in this Communicative Activity. This would include talking about interruptions, questions, timing and other elements of expected and unacceptable behaviour.

One advantage of taking this course of action would be that the Presenter is showing their level of self-confidence by taking control of an environment / situation / activity where  their reputation & professionalism could be at risk and showing a desire to do more than merely the bare minimum required.

However, there are some problems with this idea:

1. It appears than many managers are not willing to discuss this topic or, during the presentation, forget the agreement “in the heat of the moment”. After all, it is difficult to “Change the habits of a lifetime.”

2. Many people are afraid to talk to their Manager about this topic because they are afraid he/she will get angry and sack or chastise them in some way.

3. While these norms of behaviour SHOULD apply to everyone, frequently it does not happen. A LEADER SHOULD publicize these norms for his group.

Good luck in your future presentations!

Your feedback would be appreciated

The above points / perceptions have been collected over the past few years from a large group of presenters, their bosses and audience members (both internal & external clients) by the author and form the basis for this article.

Please feel free to visit our bilingual (English & Spanish) web page:


© Ian Brownlee, Brownlee & Associates, S.L., April, 2012.

About ianbrownlee

Ian Brownlee, the founder of Brownlee & Associates has been actively involved in the field of interpersonal & transcultural communication since 1977. He has worked in universities and companies in the following countries: Laos, Thailand, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, France, Italy, England, The United States of America & Spain, as a teacher, university lecturer, trainer, researcher & consultant. In addition, his experience in living in these countries, and studying the language & communication and interaction styles of each has aided him in reaching a real understanding of intercultural and transcultural differences and how to resolve them. Ian Brownlee has various masters degrees from British Universities: One in Linguistics & Teaching English Overseas from Manchester University, one in Training & Development with a specialization in the area of Communication and Adult learning awarded by the University of Sheffield. He has also gained professional qualifications in Psychotherapy & Hypnotherapy from various professional organizations. During his university career he has also studied elements of Sociology, Organizational psychology, Educational psychology, Psycholinguistics and Kinesics. He is a licensed Practitioner, Master Practitioner, and Master Trainer in NLP. as well as being a trainer in Ericksonian Hypnosis. He is a member of a wide range of professional organizations involved in Training, Applied Psychology, Hypnotherapy & Ericksonian Hypnosis, Psychotherapy, Interpersonal Communication & Cross-cultural Communication. He is also recognized by the Program on Negotiation, Harvard University, as a Negotiation Skills Trainer & Mediator and has been a collaborator on various projects with the program, and as such is in great demand as a negotiation consultant for some of the largest multinationals operating worldwide. His wide experience gained in multinational organizations in positions such as Director of Training, Communications Consultant and Negotiator / Mediator has helped many people to learn and apply new methods of negotiating skills and advanced communication techniques both in their private and professional lives. He has published various articles & books related to the field of interpersonal communication and he is the author of all the courses taught by Brownlee & Associates. He has lived and worked in Spain since 1985, initially as a trainer / Special Assistant in a multinational pharmaceutical company and then as the Training Manager for a multinational company involved in Clinical Analysis & Nuclear Medicine. Brownlee & Associates was formed in 1991 and currently has a small, highly-trained staff. While based in Madrid, courses are given world-wide either in English or Spanish. Brownlee & Associates currently work with leading international companies in the areas of pharmaceuticals , Information systems, luxury products, food & beverages, etc.
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3 Responses to “An Elephant in the Room” # 2: The Hidden Dangers of Interrupting during Presentations.

  1. Titi says:

    Brilliant piece. What is your take on this?
    In the light of the lack of concentration by the group during the boss interruption, can the presenter interrupt by saying something like ‘can we have one meeting please or can we have your attention please’. In my opinion this may bring back the group’s concentration but would the boss not take offence?

  2. ianbrownlee says:

    Hi Titi,
    As mentioned in the article, the best thing to do is to talk to the boss beforehand and show him this article and just hope that he/she is sufficiently intelligent to understand the damage that they are causing. Ususally, it is not a good idea to confront the boss openly when they interrupt as it might bounce back on you!. Being realistic, some bosses subconsciously enjoy taking control of someone else’s presentation as it shows their power to the other people in the group. However, it appears that these managers also have a higher turnover of staff and less effective teams than managers who consider the psychological elements of the actions.
    Hope this helps a bit,
    Have a great week/weekend.

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