Conference Room Bullies and How to Present to Them

Meetings as Hostile Events?

There are many reasons why presenting at a meeting can feel like a hostile event. You might already be feeling nervous about the content, or maybe the stakes are particularly high.

It could also feel hostile just based on the participants. You might be facing a group of diverse and possibly unfriendly personalities that may attempt to derail you or your topic.

Over my many years of coaching and training, one of the most consistent questions I run into starts with: “What do I do if someone does this…?” The “this” can be any number of unpleasant things like someone who frequently interrupts, who doesn’t pay attention, or who flat-out takes over your meeting.

I’ve come to call these folks conference room bullies. You have more control over them than you think you do.

Let’s learn what triggers them, how to identify these personalities, and what you can do to prepare for and present to any type of audience.

Perceived Vulnerability Triggers a Predator Response

Predation is hard-wired in the animal kingdom and is well documented as a set of distinct behaviors in both predator and prey. If a prey animal appears more vulnerable (young, sick or weak), the predator may become emboldened.

Similarly, humans tend to want to take control of or take advantage of others especially if there is a perception of vulnerability. Recent studies on crime victims analyze the links between non-verbal behaviors such as gait, body language and facial expressions that could be perceived as vulnerable, with an increased likelihood of a criminal assault.

What Triggers a Conference Room Bully?

The typical triggers are either nonverbal or related to your presentation’s content.

Nonverbal Triggers

When leading a meeting, what you do with your body language and your voice have major impact on people’s perception of you as a credible presenter. Nonverbal triggers cause immediate reactions in your audience.

  • Fleeting Eye Contact
    Sometimes the very last thing you want to do in front of a group is look everyone in the eye, especially if you’re at all intimidated. It might seem easier to quickly glance around the room, or avoid contact entirely. All this really does is make you look nervous in a fight or flight way.

    : Make meaningful eye contact with each person in the room. Holding someone’s gaze for around 3 seconds establishes a connection with that meeting participant, makes them engage with you, and allows you to feel more in control. This technique works at an unconscious level and is a non-aggressive way to assert your authority.
  • Closed, Fidgety Posture
    When you’re nervous, you may exhibit an overall closed posture. Your crossed arms and legs become like protective shields for your body. You might also have small, fidgety movements that may not even register with you, but it may be all the meeting participants remember. They’ll fixate on watching you spin that ring on your finger, and in turn, they won’t pay attention to any of the words you say. All of this gives a strong impression of vulnerability and nerves.Instead: Short-circuit that natural, protective instinct to close up, and consciously go to a relaxed, open and engaged posture. This signals to the people in the room that you are interested in and comfortably confident with your interactions. Not only will your mind relax, but studies show that open postures create positive physiological changes as well.
  • Distracting Use of Filler Words
    Most people tend to talk faster when nervous in front of a group, and pepper their speech with non-words like “um,” “ah,” and “so” when thinking about what to say next. In reality, these filler words actually increase feelings of panic for the speaker. Excessive filler words make you hard to follow, and meeting participants quickly feel impatient and like you’re wasting their time. This all puts you at real risk for frequent interruptions.Instead: Show your comfort and command of your topic by using pauses. Don’t be afraid to use the power of silence to punctuate your thoughts, to give yourself a chance to breathe, and to allow your audience to follow along. It may seem counterintuitive, but I’ve learned that using a pause is actually the antidote for unwanted interruptions.

Content Triggers

It’s not just looking or sounding nervous that make you seem vulnerable. Presentation content can as well. While the reaction time for these triggers is slower to build, they are often enough to make conference room bullies act out.

  • Slow to get to the point
    Does everyone know why they’re in this meeting and what you hope to accomplish? Remember, in the first two minutes when you’re the most anxious, the meeting participants tend to be most critical. An unfocused audience can quickly become a hostile one.Instead: Use a framework like Mandel’s SCI-PAB® (Situation/Complication/Implication-Position-Action-Benefit®) to quickly articulate why you’re meeting and what needs to be done. This tool helps you zero in quickly on what’s most important to your meeting participants.
  • Hard to follow
    It’s easy to check out of a meeting if you feel like the speaker is rambling or is diving into unneeded detail. When your content is all over the place, how do you expect meeting members to stay with you if you can’t even keep yourself on track? It’s easy to see how impatience can turn to hostility when people don’t know what you’re trying to say.Instead: Follow the rule of three and put together a tight, focused agenda. Concentrate primarily on the “must know” content vital to your meeting topic. Then be prepared to respond to meeting member questions about the “nice to know” content that is important to them.
  • Lack of care about value
    These days people are so busy and stressed with competing work demands, that if they can’t easily see the value of what you’re addressing, they either quickly lose focus or see you as a vulnerable target to confront. Why are you wasting their time and energy? Cue the aggressive questions!Instead: Overtly link meeting content to issues and projects that meeting members care about. Once they see the value to both them and their organization, you’ll be able to keep your listeners engaged and focused.

5 Types of Conference Room Bullies You’re Likely to Meet

While personalities vary greatly in every organization, I’ve come to recognize 5 predictable behaviors that might try to throw you off your game.

  1. The Grandstander: “Let me show off all that I know and have done.”
    As the token narcissist of the group, this one likes to interrupt and make things all about them. You mention a project that the team is working on, and The Grandstander will make sure that everyone knows just how big of a contributor is sitting right next to them. This one’s not only annoying, but can also interrupt your focus.Tactic: Proactively link or refer to things that The Grandstander has done well in the past. Acknowledge them in some way, either their experience or their accomplishments. Once you’ve done that, and they feel recognized, refocus on your task at hand.
  2. The Side Talking Multitasker: “Let me show everyone how little I care about your presentation.”
    This one likes to chat clandestinely with others in the room, or may be glued to their phones, or worse, an open laptop. If their whispering or asides are distracting to you, you can bet that they are distracting other members of the group as well. The Side Talking Multitasker forces you into the dilemma of either calling them out directly, or trying to ignore their disrespectful and distracting behavior entirely.Tactic: Try moving closer, while resisting the urge to just talk over them. Try an extended pause instead. You’ll regain attention when they feel awkward as the only voice in the room. Or be caring and ask if there is a specific need that they need to address with the group, which also works well if meeting virtually.
  3. The Fact Checker: “Let me derail you with detailed questions.”
    You’re working efficiently and effectively through your content. Then a conference room bully chimes in with extremely detailed questions, unnecessarily dragging the meeting into the weeds. It can easily put you on the defensive and get you off-track.Tactic: Much like The Grandstander, show your appreciation for The Fact Checker and their attention to detail. Then suggest meeting with them one-on-one to discuss their specific concerns, keeping your meeting on track.
  4. The Hijacker: “Let me subvert this meeting for my purposes or tangents.”
    How convenient that you’ve done all the hard work of getting the team together today! What a perfect opportunity for this conference room bully to step in and start talking about something entirely different than what you had planned — typically one of their pet projects. Often charismatic and well-liked, The Hijacker is more than happy to step in and take over once you have given up control of the meeting.Tactic: Take just a moment to acknowledge The Hijacker’s needs and suggest they address their need in a separate meeting. Then redirect to your topic at hand.
  5. The Dictator: “Let me constantly remind you who’s in charge.”
    This is intimidating because the bully who is acting like they are in charge, often actually is! We’ve all seen managers who are loath to give up control of a group situation even if they asked you to plan and lead the meeting.Tactic: Before the meeting, use The Dictator’s natural inclination to give advice to your advantage. Proactively seek out their counsel, perhaps giving a preview of the information you will present, or asking for their thoughts or advice. Try to avoid any potential conflicts during the meeting. While many people with this personality trait rigidly stand their ground in a group setting, they are often surprisingly flexible and collaborative one-on-one.

Maintain Your Automatic Authority

Research in psychology shows us that meeting members make decisions and judgements about you before you even utter the first word of your presentation. The first impressions you give in your opening remarks, along with your nonverbal communication, set the tone for your credibility, level of experience, and authority.

What you might not realize is that, as a presenter, you have automatic authority in the room. Simply walking to the front of the conference room creates an automatic sense of expectation of authority and leadership. It’s up to you to maintain that authority and not give up your control.

Fending Off Conference Room Bullies

It’s human nature to get defensive or argumentative when someone is making you feel uncomfortable or taken advantage of. There’s a common thread in all of the above examples on how to deflate all conference room bullies:

  • Maintain your composure.
  • Make conference bullies feel heard, not wrong.
  • Then refocus on your agenda.

As a final note, intentional malicious workplace bullying should never be tolerated. Any abusive conduct that is threatening, humiliating, or intimidating should be immediately reported to Human Resources.


Citations (Alphabetical Order)

Cuddy, Amy. (2015). Presence. New York: Little, Brown, and Company.

Holst, Brad. (2019). Are You Your Best Self While Presenting? Retrieved from

Krumm, Caroline E., M.M. Conner, N.T. Hobbs, D.O. Hunter, and M.W. Miller. (2009) Mountain lions prey selectively on prion-infected mule deer. The Royal Society. 6, 209 – 211. Retrieved from

Mandel Communications. (2019) Powerful Storytelling & Communication Tool. Retrieved from

Mandel, Steve. (2014). How to pause when presenting. Retrieved from

Prabaharan, Nivetha. (2015). Behavioural cues for the perception of victim vulnerability. Inkblot. 4, 7 – 11. Retrieved from

Weinschenk, Susan. (2012). 100 things every presenter needs to know about people. Berkeley: New Riders.

Wilson, Timothy. (2004). Strangers to Ourselves: The Adaptive Unconscious. Cambridge: Belknap Press.



Brad Holst

Brad Holst

Brad is the Principal & Executive Director, Communication Strategy and Innovation, at Mandel. He has designed and implemented successful communication, training, and coaching solutions for a diverse cross-section of Mandel’s global clients, from start-ups to top names in the Fortune 50. He is the prime creator of the proprietary models and processes in Mandel’s winning suite of communication content-planning tools, including the Mandel Blueprint®. Brad is a consultant who gets results, an insightful coach, and a dynamic, engaging speaker. He offers a rare level of business acumen based on his prior leadership roles with three market-leading companies: The Walt Disney Company, The Clorox Company, and Armor All Products.