How not to be an audience troll

by Carolyn Thomas     @HeartSisters

I’ve had a number of opportunities to witness this kind of audience question oneupmanship first hand, especially when speaking to large audiences. As the chart above suggests, sometimes the audience member who raises a hand to ask a question of a guest speaker doesn’t actually have a question at all – but instead seeks to interject his own story to shift all eyes towards himself.  To find out if you are in danger of becoming “that guy”, consider this flowchart question, for example:   

Are you about to start your question to the speaker with “In my experience…”?”

…then that is not a real question – as demonstrated in the chart answer:

“SURPRISINGLY nobody came to hear about your experience. They want to hear from the speaker. If they wanted to hear about your experience, you would BE the speaker.”

The urge to lure audience attention away from the speaker and towards “that guy” waving his little troll-like hand in the audience stems, I believe, from the “Attention Must Be Paid” self-absorbed worldview that some people embrace. You know who you are…

In my experience, most of the time the rambling interrupter is male. But sometimes it can be a woman, too – typically if it’s a woman who’s also a heart patient feeling overwhelmed or angry about her diagnosis/treatment/outcome. One of the most disruptive audience members I’ve encountered was a woman whose husband had just undergone serious (non-cardiac) surgery with many post-op complications. Almost every word I said during my talk (doctor, nurse, hospital, diagnosis, etc.) merely served to twig a reminder of yet another horrific part of the story she needed to tell the group about her hubby’s awful experience. No matter how I tried throughout the evening, I was unable to convince her to stop. It was an exhausting and demoralizing experience for me as the speaker!  See also: Oneupmanship: you think YOU have pain?

But one man perfectly exemplified audience troll behaviour during one of my presentations last year (50 women, one man – the husband of a heart patient; the two had signed up together for one of my free Heart-Smart Women public talks, a.k.a. “Part cardiology bootcamp. Part stand-up comedy”). 

Within minutes of my opening sentence, this man’s hand shot into the air. When I acknowledged his question, he explained to the group in a loud booming voice in unnecessarily embroidered detail that he was a “retired researcher” along with several other irrelevant details to show us how smart and accomplished he was (including the names of his grad school universities as if that information mattered at all to anybody in that room).

Within about 30 seconds, I realized that there was no question coming.

He just wanted to talk about himself and his vast intellectual superiority – just to make sure so we all knew. I had the odd sensation that he was also giving me due notice – that as a “retired researcher”, HE clearly knew far more about my subject than I did. (We were not actually sure what his specific area of research had been before he retired. It could have been fruit flies or tomato blight, for all we knew).

He tried everything short of joining me onstage.

This would have all been quite hilarious had he not seemed bent on grinding my presentation to a screeching halt with his rambling interruptions. I glanced at his long-suffering wife/heart patient sitting next to him, her eyes downcast, her face unreadable. No doubt, she’d already discovered over the years that elbowing hubby in the ribs to shut him up had little effect. She may have been as embarrassed by his behaviour as I would have felt had it been my own husband behaving this way, but she also seemed resigned.

I sensed that the other women in the room were getting squirmy. Ramblings from another audience member were NOT why they’d signed up to attend this talk.

I’ve been involved in public speaking for decades, so have had to master some devices for handling interrupters, hecklers or drunken Rotarians. So I interjected my usual “In the interests of time, we’re going to continue with the key points that we have been discussing…” to cut him off. But when I had to interject more than once, I quickly moved on to Plan B.

Plan B happens when I stop making any eye contact whatsoever with the one with his hand in the air, despite the furious attention-seeking arm-waving from the back row. I’d look at the left of the room, then over to the right, or down at the front few rows, but carefully ignored the face behind all that urgent waving.  “Don’t feed the trolls”, as we say on social media.

And it worked. Unable to get me to acknowledge his presence, he eventually simply stopped waving and interrupting.

But not soon enough to pacify some other members of the audience. At the end of that otherwise uneventful talk, a woman approached me as I was packing up to head home, her question to me brief and briskly to the point:

“Have you considered NOT letting men attend your talks?”

ASIDE from CAROLYN:   I’m very happy to say that I welcome men in my women’s heart health audiences! Men, after all, have sisters and mothers and wives and co-workers whose heart health they care about. Many of the thousands of people who have made up my audiences since I started doing these talks after attending the WomenHeart Science and Leadership Symposium For Women With Heart Disease at Mayo Clinic have been men. And, luckily, the majority of the men I’ve met at my highly interactive presentations have been fabulous audience members, asking thoughtful questions, contributing appropriately without monopolizing the topic, and (best of all!) clapping loudly at the end.

So, no, in answer to her question, I have no intention of restricting men from attending my talks. I love having men in my audience.

Fast forward a number of weeks. 

I’m onstage in a large auditorium at our local hospital, the evening’s guest speaker at a reunion of hundreds of cardiac rehabilitation “graduates”, all heart patients or their family members.  I’ve just returned from speaking at the first annual Heart Disease in Women: A New Era medical conference at Mayo Clinic, and have been invited to share with this group the highlights of what I learned from cardiologists attending this conference.

I’ve barely begun speaking when a hand shoots skyward from the back of the audience. There are so many people in the full house that I cannot really see whose hand is waving for my attention, but when I acknowledge the questioner from the back, guess who stands up?

I’d know this guy anywhere! It’s the retired researcher, apparently now a groupie on my speaking circuit.

Here’s my dilemma, as some of you who are used to speaking in public may have already surmised:  I know what’s coming (i.e. an endless list of non-questions). How can I graciously nip this in the bud without sounding as forceful as I really want to be (which is to start yelling, “SHUT UP! SIT DOWN! STOP FOLLOWING ME!”)

Instead, at his very first nanosecond-pause to inhale, I talk right over him, thanking him for his “question”, but, because I recognize him and his wife as having already heard my talk before,  I know he’ll be agreeable to this time letting others who are first-timers offer their questions or comments.

Surprisingly, amazingly, he does agree (perhaps after his wife did finally deliver a well-placed elbow to the ribs?), many others get to pose thoughtful questions or comments throughout, and I’m able to finish my presentation within my allotted time!

In the June issue of Toastmasters magazine, London-based street performer Owen Lean was asked how he deals with hecklers in his audiences around the world. He gave these examples:

“I’ve developed tactics for dealing with archetypes like ‘the Joker’, who may have been the class clown in school and just wants to be part of the action. They typically aren’t trying to be disruptive, so I will sometimes include them.  One audience member was being disruptive during a performance. After a while, I addressed him: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to my uncle. I was quite sure I tied him up in the car.’  The man joined in the fun, laughing and retorting, “Nephew! Great to see you again!’  And that was the last we heard from him. He was satisfied with the attention.”

NOTE: Before you ask your next question at a conference or any public meeting, review the flow chart (above) to figure out if your question is even a question in the first place. You’ll be doing the speaker onstage a courtesy, and I guarantee you’ll be better at asking good questions than that retired researcher was. . .

Q: Have you ever had to handle audience questions that are actually non-questions?

NOTE FROM CAROLYN: I wrote much more about this topic in Chapter 7 of my book, “A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease”. You can ask for it at your local library or bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order it directly from my publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press (use the code HTWN to save 20% off the list price).

See also:





4 thoughts on “How not to be an audience troll

  1. As a man, I love your blog and would love to hear you speak – any plans to come to Ireland soon?

    Heart health is a serious issue in our country and awareness is essential to improve our health.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Carolyn, you handled that troll beautifully. While I don’t give presentations anymore, a few years ago I gave over a hundred talks on climate change science, impacts, and how households could reduce their energy consumption.

    I was absolutely petrified of public speaking when I began, but given the subject matter, I felt I needed to get over that fear quickly. Thankfully, we never had a heckler/troll interrupt us (I gave these talks with a co-presenter) as frequently as Mr. Retired Researcher.

    We did run into our share of climate deniers, but we expected that. The presentations we gave over the course of a couple of years helped me understand that for many people, information and facts do not impact their opinions or the views they hold on subjects. Rather, many people have their values-based opinions and selectively choose the “facts” that are in line with their views. And I also learned that very often, information alone isn’t enough to motivate people to change their actions. Something I keep in mind as I spread the word about Quitting the Sitting.

    Great post and I love the hilarious flow chart! How true!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing your interesting perspective, Denise. So true what you say: “for many people, information and facts do not impact their opinions”. We have only to look at the recent Brexit vote, or the circus that is the U.S. election campaign to see evidence of that.

      Or as the old saying goes: “Don’t confuse me with the facts – my mind is made up!”


Your opinion matters. What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s