I want to tell you about the time a legend of the silver screen and theatre showed me how you deal with an awkward audience interaction effectively. It taught me so much about where I think my focus ought to be as a presenter or public speaker and added a valuable tool to my toolkit.


A while back, I attended a Q&A with celebrated Norwegian actress, Liv Ullmann, at London’s BFI, following a screening of one of her films with Ingmar Bergman, Autumn Sonata.


Full disclosure: I generally don’t enjoy attending Q&As, because I get worried that members of the audience, instead of taking the opportunity to ask the speaker an insightful question, will opt to make a long, drawn-out observation or boast about a previous encounter with that speaker. Then I feel uncomfortable.


On this occasion, however, I couldn’t miss out on the chance to hear one of the world’s greatest living performers in conversation. And, as I expected, the post-screening chat with her interviewer was illuminating.

Then came the audience Q&A part. The dreaded Q&A part. That dreaded Q&A part which only served to confirm my bias about these kinds of events. 


Still, as squirm-worthy as segments of the Q&A proved to be, I did get a masterclass from Ullmann on how to field an awkward interaction with an audience member with class and aplomb.

The Awkward Interaction

Here’s what happened: despite there being a long queue of people standing in line to ask Ullmann questions, one audience member used her turn to say:

“You probably don’t remember this, but… a few years ago we were on the same flight together and, as we were disembarking the plane, your jacket got caught in my hand luggage, and we exchanged a smile when you turned around… I was wondering if you remembered that”.


A quiet pause followed. To me, as a fellow audience member, that moment of silence felt like a protracted, awkward hour. ‘How do you respond to that?’ I thought.


I can imagine that many of us have been in situations where a presenter or public speaker has had to deal with a challenging question, observation or other curveball from another audience member and this, in turn, made the rest of the room feel uneasy or uncomfortable – personally as well as for the speaker.


Now, yes, I know, I know – the aeroplane interaction had clearly meant a lot to that audience member and left a lasting impression on them. My sense, however, was that this was not the time or the occasion to share this when the slot allocated for the Q&A was short, and many others had stood up to try and get the chance to ask Ullmann a question.


What followed has stayed with me just as much as the aeroplane interaction has stayed with that audience member. After the initial silence, Ullmann smiled kindly at the audience member and said, with a gentle, respectful tone:

“Thank you for reminding me of that. At my age now, I may not remember all these moments here” [she gestured at her head], “but I still carry them all with me here” [she gestured at her heart].


And with that brief response all awkwardness in the room dissipated. What Ullmann did was to make the situation alright not only for that specific audience member but also for the rest of the room.

A Good Host

Like a good host at a party, she put her focus externally, on her guests – the audience – and made it ok for the member to have asked their question (which had initially felt uncomfortable) by thanking them for it.


She then placed the positive part of her message (about how she carried all interactions with fans in her heart) as the focal point of her response, so that the fact she didn’t recall the interaction itself was secondary and fell by the wayside.

A Lesson Learned

It’s been a valuable lesson to me. However awkward, challenging or out of the blue a curveball might first seem in the context of presentations or public speaking events, find something positive to respond or agree with (or perhaps acknowledge in some way). That way, you will be looking after your audience as a whole and making that interaction easier to deal with both for them and for yourself.


To this I would add that once you’ve given an initial positive response to the person throwing the curveball at you, move the focus away from that one person and involve the rest of the room. And then, get back to the point you were making in the first place.


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