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How to Deal with Rude Interruptions. Surprise Speaking Advice from America’s Founding Father.

By: Julie Lindsay, Speechworks

Category: Other

You’re giving a presentation and someone on the front row emits a loud, copious yawn. Another listener alternates loud nose blowing with a hacking cough, while yet another hums quietly but audibly while drumming her fingers on the desktop.

As speakers, we can run the gamut of thoughtless interruptions, from physical distractions to blatantly rude behavior. This has been on my mind since I discovered a dusty book in a little cabin in the mountains. It was George Washington’s “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and in Conversation” and it was a revelation.

While some of Washington’s “rules” – like “bedew no man’s face with your spittle” – are lessons we hopefully have down, others have surprising relevance in today’s boardrooms and corporate corridors.

“Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present.”

At Speechworks, our strong philosophy is that speakers should put the audience first. This differentiates you from every other team in town that starts their presentation with a dog and pony show for themselves. We say respect your audience and make their business need the prime focus of your presentation. We call that the “hook” that reels in their interest, but at the core of this is respect for your audience and it pays big dividends in the end.

“Sleep not when others speak. Speak not when you should hold your peace.”

Just a few weeks ago – I was teaching a workshop when a young woman dozed off. I know this doesn’t say a lot for my communication skills, but I decided slumber was probably preferable to her sitting with her nose three inches from her cell phone which had been her previous default position. Not only was this disrespectful to her coach, but to her work colleagues – who were actively participating in the class. How do we deal with such blatant incivility?

“In reproving, shew no sign of choler but do it with sweetness and mildness.” 

At Speechworks, we believe in the power of the pause. Pauses create drama when you’re about to hit a significant point or call to action. They also give your audience time to catch up if you’re presenting complex ideas. But a pause can also work as a non-verbal cattle-prod for the inattentive. Try it. If someone is staring at their phone or laptop, simply stop, pause, move towards the offender and wait. Trust me, it doesn’t take long for them to notice the silence and jerk their attention back to your presentation.

The same technique works when someone decides to have a sidebar conversation as you speak. Best of all, you can do it with a smile on your face as you shame them into attention!

“Let your discourse with men of business be short and comprehensive.” 

We at Speechworks believe a concise message is the best message. We teach a formula that gets to the point fast. It starts by articulating your audience’s main challenge (the hook).

You then move to the message objective – a promise that “if you do what I want you’ll get what you want.”

You then illustrate how this can be done with three KEY points.

Not 27 points with 108 PowerPoint slides. Sound familiar?

Trust us when we say your audience will NOT thank you or recall half of what you said.

Next, it’s rinse, wash, repeat those three points before tying it all up nicely with a recap, wrap and call to action. Avoid the urge to overload your audience.

As George advised: Keep it “short and comprehensive.”

And finally, these closing words of wisdom: “When in company, put not your hands to any part of the body, not usually discovered. Shew nothing to your friend that may affright him.”

Of course, that’s still good advice.

© Wickedgood | / George Washington

Speechworks is a communication and selling skills coaching firm. We teach professionals how to craft and deliver complex messages in a simple, persuasive manner. Since 1986, through workshops and one-on-one instruction, we have helped countless individuals become better presenters and communicators. You can reach us at 404.266.0888, or on the web at

Julie Lindsay

Julie Lindsay draws on a long career in television news to help clients speak in a way that is simple and persuasive. She began her journalism career with the BBC in London, reporting on everything from terrorist attacks and natural disasters, to war zones and revolutions. Next, came a move to the U.S. as anchor and editor on CNN International.

She also served as Chief Managing Editor with WebMD in the U.K. and then programming editor of Global Health Frontline News, making documentaries about kids fighting curable diseases around the world.

She can be reached at 404-266-0888 or


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