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Communication Skills: Business Communication, Hostile Audiences

Facing the Hostile Audience: You Can Run, But You Can't Hide. So What Should You Do?

For many presenters, the hostile audience is right up there with stage fright as their worst nightmare. But just as it is with stage fright, there are ways to deal with the problem audience.

The audience is not the enemy.
Most audiences are naturally supportive and open to what you have to say. Still, the time may come when you'll have to face an audience of cynics who are openly resistant or even hostile. There are ways to deal with the problem.

Address the issues before you present.
Almost always, you'll know in advance that you'll be dealing with a tough audience. Rarely does it come as a surprise, and when it does, it's usually the result of poor preparation. So, before you present, make sure you've done your audience analysis. You can do a lot to minimize and even prevent adverse audience reaction by anticipating how your listeners are likely to react to what you say. (See our article, You Talkin' To Me?, on audience analysis, in our Fall 2003 issue.)

Know your listeners—and what drives them.
Your audience analysis should tell you what you need to know about the attitudes, biases, or concerns your audience may have. What does your audience think about your topic? Is your topic controversial, likely to stir emotions or lead to a backlash? Will you be putting people on the defensive? What are the expectations of those you know will be in your audience? Will they, for example, be expecting you to address their concerns about some deeply felt issue?

As you prepare, focus on these and other issues that could trigger negative emotions. Anticipate negative issues that may come up, acknowledge them, and place them in a context of your choosing as you build your presentation. That way, you're framing the issue yourself and proactively responding to it in a way that helps to achieve your objectives. If, for example, your audience research tells you some issues can't be waved away, and you know they're going to come up anyway, attack them head on. That way, you'll be able to present them in a manner that will help defuse the situation. Further, by addressing sensitive issues as part of your overall remarks, you will at least show you're alert to the concerns of your listeners.

At the same time, don't go overboard when anticipating a negative response. Go with your audience knowledge and your instincts in judging what issues to raise and address in your presentation, and what to leave out. You certainly don't want to raise an issue that wasn't on anyone's mind in the first place.

The listener who is still resistant—no matter what.
What happens when you've prepared thoroughly, but some of your listeners are still not satisfied How do you deal with those who openly disagree with you or challenge you? Here are some tips:
  • Stay calm at all costs. If you return the fire, you'll only encourage more negative behavior.
  • Don't judge your entire audience by the reactions of a few, who may not represent the views of everyone. People who interrupt, loudly disagree, or become combative are likely to offend others in the audience as well.
  • Be sure to address the issue only. Don't put the individual on the defensive and certainly don't criticize anyone personally.
  • Look for areas of agreement you can build on. That doesn't mean you should back down when all your research tells you you're right. Looking for common ground is not a form of compromise. You can acknowledge the other person's point of view without agreeing with it.
  • Stay within the immediate discussion. Avoid offering more facts or opinions that could trigger more disagreement.
  • Avoid getting bogged down in an adversarial exchange that seems to go on forever. Once you've covered a topic as thoroughly as you choose to, end the discussion by saying simply that you've explained your position, but now it's time to move on. You can offer to discuss the issue further after your presentation.
  • Do interrupt when someone with a dissenting view wanders onto another subject or appears about to give a presentation of his own. Make it clear that time is short and that you want to stay focused on the day's agenda.
To keep things in perspective: It's the rare audience that will not give you a fair hearing. But be prepared when someone in your audience does get out of hand.

This Issue

Knowing how to deal with an unfriendly or skeptical audience is one of many techniques that make for an effective presentation. You can learn how to tackle this and other issues that can derail even the best-prepared presentation by attending one of our programs. We're available for group or one-on-one training at our location or yours.

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