How to deal with disturbances in a quick-witted and charming way (by Ralf Schmitt)

“I love glitches” or “Glitches – Yes please!”

Almost everyone who comes up with a speech, lecture or presentation is afraid of disruption. But every interruption of the planned course always holds the chance for interactions with the audience and thus at the same time a charming opportunity to individualize one’s own performance.

This article deals with provoked and unprovoked reactions and would like to show you how to welcome disturbances, as they can often be improvised into a very individual situation. The techniques I use on stage as a presenter and keynote speaker are explained with anecdotes and practiced with the help of various tips. The end result is easy-to-use solution blocks that you can adapt to presentation or sales situations.

Totally spontaneous – I love disruptions

I am standing on the stage. Everything is perfectly prepared and the audience is hanging on my lips. I am funny, charming and also a bit sexy. My PowerPoint presentation works and the audience laughs in all the right places. But then it happens all at once: a malfunction, an incident that no one could have expected. One of my listeners is not responding as intended in my mind. He throws my plan out the window and tries to throw me off the presentation god. He asks a question in between, arrives late, leaves early, talks on the phone, talks to his neighbor, smooches or just doesn’t behave as he should. This is a gau, a super gau, a gau gau, as they say in the speaker scene.

I love disruptions or interruptions! For me, they are exactly the salt in the soup of a good presentation. Because they open up unimagined possibilities for interaction with my audience.

The only question is how to get out of this situation now. Everyone in the room is looking at me. You expect a good counterattack, a set that sits and then there is peace in the box.

Real disruption or just a side issue?

The first question I always ask myself with every “supposed” disturbance is: Is it a real disturbance or is it just disturbing me? This is because 95% of all malfunctions are not stage-relevant impairments. Often the audience doesn’t get any of this at all.

I once moderated an event for a major energy provider. About 1000 guests were sitting in the audience and my opening presentation lasted about 45 minutes. It went well. The mood was relaxed. I had the place under control, as they say.

Only at the very front left were two men chatting incessantly with each other – from my introduction to my first break. I always kept an eye on her out of the corner of my eye, but never looked directly at her. The situation annoyed me colossally and I had to spend large parts of my moderation memory on ignoring the two gentlemen. None of the other 1000 guests in the room seemed to mind, however.

As I continued to moderate, I went through all the possible options in my head to resolve this disruption for me in a goal-oriented way. Do I address the situation directly? Do I look at them, give them a focus, and remain silent? Do I comment on the situation? Do I just ignore the interference? Since they didn’t seem to bother anyone but me, I opted for the last option. I ignored them until my first lengthy interruption.

During this break, I stormed into the backstage area and met my then production manager, who greeted me with a beaming smile and said, “It’s going great so far. I looked at her with wide eyes and reported slightly strained about the two troublemakers from the front row. My production manager just looked at me and said, “Oh Ralf, I’m sorry. We forgot to tell you that the managing director from England is sitting in the front row with his interpreter. He just translates everything you say.”. So the supposed disturbance immediately vanished into thin air and I was able to continue the moderation in a relaxed manner. My moderation hard drive was free for real disruption again.

This experience became a key experience for me in terms of disruption. Because since then, the first question I ask myself is whether this disturbance only bothers me. If the audience doesn’t even notice that someone is late or briefly talking to their neighbor, then it doesn’t bother me either. Then I register the distraction, but ignore it.

Analysis of a malfunction

I use four different methods to respond to a disturbance. For two, you react passively and for the other two, you go into active response. Let’s start with the passive methods first.

1. ignoring the disturbance

I have already given you an example of ignoring. The most important rule when ignoring is: If the event disturbs only me, then ignore it, if it disturbs others, then react.

2. acknowledgement of the fault

Let’s assume that guests arrive late to your presentation or have to leave early. Then you should tolerate this disturbance. Tolerate means here: I don’t think this disturbance is great – that’s already in the word – but I don’t get upset about it either. I comment on them motionless.

I once experienced a case of an obvious malfunction during a moderation for a large IT company. The American CEO was giving a speech to over 700 customers when suddenly the lights went on in the entire hall. The CEO continued unmoved. When after a minute the whole location was still brightly lit, he commented: “Is someone leaning at the switch panel?”, meaning: “Is someone leaning at the light switches?” The result: great laughter throughout the hall. What had the quick-witted American CEO done? He tolerated the situation and commented without attacking anyone personally.

Now let’s move on to the active disturbances that I can or would like to respond to. There are disruptions that are impossible to ignore, or disruptions that fit perfectly into the program, that you integrate, or where you go into confrontation. Again, there are two options: Integrate or Confront.

3. integration of the disturbance

Important in advance: I consider connecting or integrating to be the much better option compared to confronting. I would only go into confrontation in the case of a massive negative disturbance. Here are a few tips from the perspective of a TV warm-up actress and comedian.

Between 2003 and 2008 I did so-called warm-ups for television. My job as a warm-up man was, on the one hand, to get the studio guests up to operating temperature and, on the other hand, to continue to ensure a good atmosphere in the event of incidents and technical breakdowns – there were many incidents and technical breakdowns. I always had a clear concept, but it turned out differently every time. In responding, I always kept in mind psychologist Ruth Cohn’s phrase: “Every plan must be wrong because all factors can never be known.”

The same can happen to us when we present, lecture, or stand on stage. We imagine how it could work. We plan. But sometimes things work out differently. For such a case I have written down some basic rules or experiences from my time as a Warm-Upper.

In the case of broadcasts that were recorded, there were often aborts, i.e. the broadcast was stopped for various reasons. At such a moment, the presenter and the guests usually left the recording studio, the cameramen and technicians stopped working and I had to bridge for the audience. Often I did not know how long the interruption lasted. That could be three minutes or 45 minutes. My job then was to keep the audience happy, explain the perceived disruption, and catch any possible negative sentiments.

Do you remember the Madrid goal case? In 1998, at the Champions League match between Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund, a goal fell over one minute before kickoff. Marcel Reif and Günther Jauch were the commentators for the broadcast and, similar to the warm-up, had to bridge an indefinite period of time. The indefinite period lasted 76 minutes in the end. Marcel Reif later stated in an interview, “Günther Jauch saved me from media suicide.” Later, it was an evening of anarchy. Because normally Champions League matches are just as perfectly planned as your presentations.

The inner monologue

Here are a few tips to save you from media suicide or suicide on stage. After all, you rarely have a colleague as quick-witted as Günther Jauch at your side during presentations.

The inner monologue is a basic technique I have always worked with. I described exactly what was happening at the moment. For example, when a burned-out studio lamp needed to be fixed, I began to do an inner monologue about the situation, including a mood piece. Of course, I held this monologue aloud, as if I were talking to myself. I described everything in detail, like a painting. How the technicians come and feel, how the burned out lamp feels now … In doing so, I let myself be driven by my feelings in this specific situation and by my associations. Most of the time, the audience laughed pretty quickly. With these reactions, I was then able to continue working immediately.

For the stage, for your presentation situation, if for example the beamer fails, my tip is: look at yourself from a bird’s eye view and describe the situation as you feel right now. You are now the loser. Everything planned so great and then the beamer doesn’t work. Put yourself in the role of a spectator and if you like it really freaky, put yourself in the role of the beamer. Ask yourself, how do you think the beamer is doing right now? “I can understand the lamp giving up its ghost. My presentation really isn’t that great …” Describe the malfunction from your perspective. It’s called a change of perspective and it brings a lot of laughter and fun to your presentation. And the audience notices how spontaneous you are.

→ The warm-uppers’ tip is thus: Integrate the disturbance with the help of an inner monologue.


Impro players can do everything except learn lines. Here’s how they deal with disruption: There’s an exercise I sometimes do with my participants at storytelling workshops. They stand at the front of the stage and, while telling an improvised story, move to the back. Various objects are lying on the floor. The task is to integrate the objects lying on the floor into the story. When I explain this exercise, the typical response is, “I can’t do that, improvise, and then include unexpected terms.” As soon as my participants try it out, it flows and they get a lot of applause and laughter from the audience. People are excited about how creatively the players incorporate the various given words into the story after all.

A typical “impro incident” would be a hyper audience that continues to shout suggestions in between during scenes. I immediately incorporate these suggestions into the scene. When this becomes too exhausting, I comment with the sentence: “Today I hear voices in my head all the time. The typical response is laughter and then there is usually silence.

→ The improv player’s tip is therefore: Integrate the disruption by actively incorporating it into your presentation or conversation.

I have one last tip for you at this point: Just try everything once – say “yes please” to unwanted disruptions and use them to present yourself to your customer individually and spontaneously. Remember John Lennon, because “Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans”. Don’t let supposed glitches throw you off your game, but perhaps even turn them into a charming twist that will leave you positively remembered by the customer.

Contributed image: psdesign1 –

Ralf Schmitt has been working as a moderator, trainer and keynote speaker for a good 15 years. Every time he inspires his audience with a well-balanced mixture of professional competence and fine humor. The special feature of his performances is the interaction with the audience – both during the keynote and the moderation. Since he also likes to combine these two activities very much, he is actually a “KeyMode Speaker”. In his lectures, he provides his audience with a “mindset for a flexible future”. Because flexibility and spontaneity are in the blood of the stage professional, whose roots lie in improv theater. He is the managing director of Impulspiloten GmbH and, together with his team, advises his clients on event dramaturgy and stage programs.

Ralf Schmitt is the author of the books “I’m totally spontaneous if you let me know in time” and ” I’m totally popular, nobody knows it” and he is a board member of the German Speakers Association. |