stop written on cobblestones

Stop Interrupting Speakers

I don’t often publicly criticize an event while it’s still happening – I don’t like to be a complainer – but this weekend at WordCamp Ottawa, I couldn’t help myself. On the morning of the first day, I tweeted out:

Getting tired of people interrupting speakers at #wcott. Unless they’ve invited questions during the talk, it throws off the speaker and most of the audience can’t hear you anyway. Be respectful.

I’d spent the morning watching speakers (all women, by the way) being constantly interrupted by audience members – most not even asking questions, but commenting on some aspect of the talk. I’ve never seen this happen as badly before at any event, WordCamp or otherwise. And you can’t blame an intimate room size as the culprit – this happened in a large auditorium.

That afternoon, a woman was giving a lightning talk, with a short amount of time to present. Smack dab in the middle of her presentation, a man piped up to voice disagreement with one of the examples she was showing. Audience conversation started rolling from there, and I could see the speaker – who’d never presented at a WordCamp before – start to look a little flustered, as her talk became completely derailed.

I was filled with rage. I’ve never done this before, but I had to say something.

“Let’s let her finish her talk. She only has seven minutes left, and she can take Q&A after.”

There was a small shocked silence. I’m not sure if I imagined it, but I might have heard a few murmurs of agreement.

The speaker finished the rest of her talk without interruption, and then took questions after.

Afterwards, a few people – including the speaker – thanked me for calling out the interrupter.

I don’t know what was in the air at WordCamp Ottawa this weekend, but I implore audience members to keep this in mind:

Your desire to express your opinion is not more important than the speaker’s right to finish their talk without being interrupted. Interrupting a speaker is disrespectful – you are throwing off their focus, disturbing their flow, and messing with their timing.

As a speaker, there are a couple of things you can do to curb this phenomenon. First, tell the audience your preference as you start the talk.

For example:

“We’ll have a good 5-10 minutes for questions at the end, so save them til after.”

Or,

“I don’t mind taking questions throughout the presentation, while they’re fresh in your mind. Just raise your hand and I’ll repeat it so the rest of the audience can hear.”

If someone interjects with a question or comment when you’ve asked people not to, remember that it’s your right to say:

“Thanks for the question. Let’s hold it til the end, and if I haven’t covered it during the rest of the talk I’ll be glad to address it then.”

Remember, you are in control of your talk. No one has the right to throw you off.

Featured image by Lucas Cobb (CC BY 2.0)

13 thoughts on “Stop Interrupting Speakers

  1. I absolutely agree. I was thankfully near the end of the roster, so being aware of this happening, I was prepared for any and all takers. This also comes with experience of the speaker to control the room too, and it does get easier to do with practice. As a speaker, don’t let these situations hold you back. Learn from them and get better at controlling your crowd. Practice makes (almost) perfect.

    Thank you Kathryn for speaking up during the talk, as well as writing this article.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This drives me absolutely bonkers.

    I really dislike interrupting questions and I dislike “opinion” questions. Anytime someone starts a question with “Well I think…” that’s an opinion and you should save it for a private one on one chat after the talk.

    I’m not sure what about WordCamp culture promotes this? Maybe attendees aren’t used to conferences? Maybe it’s how informal the culture looks & is (shorts & t-shirts instead of suits)? Or maybe something else.

    With WordCamp Denver coming around the corner maybe we can add something to our opening remarks about not interrupting speakers?

    Like

    • Interesting theories. I’m still not sure why it happened here – still pondering that – and I haven’t seen this level of interrupting at any of the (many) WordCamps I’ve been to before.

      With WordCamp Denver coming around the corner maybe we can add something to our opening remarks about not interrupting speakers?

      I think that’s a great idea. Let me know how it goes. 🙂

      Like

      • I can hazard a guess – the Code of Conduct at this WordCamp isn’t enforced, and therefore is worthless, and this is why I am not going to Wordcamps, even though I work on WordPress.

        Yes, that’s a sweeping generalisation designed to get you to read the rest of this comment 😉 But hear me out, because instances like this send the message that this is the case.

        From another comment:

        > I did this once at WordCamp San Diego. I felt like an ass soon thereafter, so the punishment fit the crime.

        No, the punishment that fits the crime is that you may be required to forfeit your right to participate in the conference, as per sections 4 and 5 of this WordCamp’s Code of Conduct. Feeling like an ass is a private feeling that you can ignore and deal with yourself. Having your talk derailed is a very visible embarrassment and humiliation.

        In all honestly. If the Code of Conduct isn’t enforced and we’re relying on audience members to call out people who derail talks in front of a crowd, I dread to think what happens in relatively private scenarios.

        At PyCON, any interrupters are told to stop, and if they don’t, they’re ejected from the talk, possibly the entire conference. I see that the CoC template for Wordcamps contains the same wording as the PyCON CoC (they all seem to be based on the geek feminism wiki template!) but from reading this account it seems like a clear failure of the organisers to enforce the CoC.

        The result? I feel safe at PyCON. Last year, PyCON UK had a single instance of talk interruption, and the individual was ejected. This behaviour is simply not acceptable, and the community knows it.

        I’ll repeat that last point: The PyCON UK community _knows_ what behaviour is acceptable, and what isn’t, because the CoC is enforced. This WordCamp community doesn’t seem to know.

        Codes of Conduct exist for a reason, and if they’re not enforced, they’re worthless.

        Now you may think I’ve taken some logical leaps in my reasoning here, and yes, maybe I have – but I _have_ to. I’m in a minority at these conferences, and have to choose where I go based on the reports I hear. I do this for my own physical and metal well-being.

        Make sure people read, and agree to the CoC when they buy their ticket. Get people to acknowledge the consequences of breaking the CoC. Enforce it when they do.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I felt terrible for the presenter when this happened. You could tell it was derailing everything. Thanks for speaking up and getting the focus back to the presenter!

    Like

  4. I try to open all of our meetups and presentations that I’m hosting with this line during announcements:

    “You can talk while I’m up here and between sessions, but please don’t talk while presenters are giving their talks.”

    Reminding folks of their manners in advance is the only way to (sometimes) get people to follow them.

    Like

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