The cacophony of hoots, cackles and boos from the opposition MPs in Parliament were so loud, Prime Minister Theresa May stopped talking, sat down, and waited until the speaker of the house called the room to order. The red-hot topic was once again, Brexit, and emotions were running high. Regardless of your position on the issue, when it comes to a nightmare scenario of making your case to a contrary crowd, there is strong consensus that this one ranks with the most challenging. While you may never have to present or pitch an idea to such a raucous, hostile group, there are plenty of occasions in business when your audience can be, shall we say, difficult? Here’s how to deal with them . . .
Senior executives are notorious for pulling the rug out from under presenters by all manner of disruptive behavior. Five minutes into a presentation, they might derail the talk by changing the subject, arguing with each other, or cutting the speaker’s time because he or she is not getting to the bottom line fast enough. In a different tough-audience scenario, say a technical conference, one person might monopolize the question-and-answer session by incessantly challenging the presenter’s data. Or how about an HR manager trying to convince a roomful of engineers that the new benefits plan is an improvement, even though employees will have to pay more for what they get?
Having to deliver a difficult message, or simply presenting to an inherently challenging audience, calls for a special set of skills. Here are our best tips for successfully managing a tough audience:
Prepare, prepare, prepare. Know your data inside and out, and research your audience. The first will go a long way in establishing your credibility, and the second will put your audience more at ease as they see that you have considered their concerns.
Get a sponsor. Look for someone in the organization who has knowledge of, and credibility with, your audience. Run your presentation by your sponsor to get input. Pick their brains about what questions and objections to anticipate. Are there any politics you should take into consideration? If possible, have your sponsor attend the presentation, with the understanding that if needed—and appropriate—he or she step in if you need the support.
Paraphrase the points. It’s often true that audience members become disruptive because, for whatever reason, they don’t feel their thoughts/ideas/concerns are being heard. The simple act of paraphrasing a question or audience member’s point, clearly and without bias, lets them know you understand their message or concern. This often diffuses the emotion behind the point and allows you to move on.
Keep your cool. Sometimes, an audience member simply has a bad attitude or an axe to grind, and uses your presentation as an opportunity to vent. It’s important not to take the disruption personally, and not to allow him or her to waste your audience’s time. Stay calm, briefly acknowledge the disrupter’s point, then firmly move on.
Parliament isn’t the only place a presenter might face a cranky crowd. So the next time you step in front of the mic, be prepared to manage the room by knowing your stuff, knowing your audience, and keeping your presentation on track.
Speaking Up: Presenting to Decision Makers®: March 14, 2019, Redwood City, CA May 9, 2019, Redwood City, CA July 18, 2019, Redwood City, CA
The PowerSpeaking Team