Handling A Difficult Audience
Audiences can be difficult for different reasons and in different ways. Unless you are a stand-up comedian or an unpopular politician - both practised at working an awkward audience - it can be tough.
# 1 piece of advice
Staying in control, radiating calm and good nature are the most successful tactics in helping you win the day. Anger simply begets more hostility.
Hostile or difficult questions
It runs counter to human nature, but in the face of hostile questioning try and avoid appearing defensive. Employ the tone of a university lecturer answering a particularly challenging student: interested, calm, confident but not patronising. Avoid the "you must be a nutter" tone of voice.
Here are some suggestions that may be useful in certain circumstances:
Start by thanking the person for a good / interesting / perceptive question - often a little gentle flattery can work wonders.
It may be that the question is simply camouflage for a point of view, in which case why not ask the person what they think.
You might consider passing the question over to someone else in the audience; as in "Bill, you look like you may have a view on this". If it is a hostile, opinion-loaded question just be sure that Bill is on your side.
Defer the answer
If someone is being difficult and persistent about something of little interest to anyone else then suggest that you deal with it separately after the presentation.
When you can anticipate problems
Sometimes you can predict trouble in a meeting and you know exactly who it is going to come from. Here are some strategies that might help.
Pre-empt the issue
Being first to raise something gives you a little more moral high ground than you had before. It also puts you in the driving seat rather than being on the defensive.
Cover off trouble-makers in advance.
Meet up before the meeting and try negotiating their support or silence. It will not always work but it is worth trying.
Build alliances before the presentation
Whenever there is a controversial vote in the United Nations or another democratic body you can be sure that the key players have got a good idea of the result beforehand. How? Because they have spent the previous days, weeks or months lobbying, negotiating and offering incentives.
Do the same so that when the going gets tough you are not fighting your corner alone.
Handling objections to your ideas
Jeremy Paxman is a BBC interviewer with a take-no-prisoners style. Here is a fragment of a long interview with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, where Tony Blair reframes the question to his advantage...
PAXMAN: Prime Minister, the gap between rich and poor has widened while you have been in office.
BLAIR: The lowest income families in this country are benefiting from the government. Their incomes are rising.
The reframe is a commonly used technique and can be very successful unless of course your audience is determined that you stick to the point.
Calming Mr Angry
If someone is angry allow them to let off steam and then, if appropriate, show empathy.
Empathy doesn't require you to agree with them, but it does demand conspicuously attentive listening and acknowledgement of their feelings or point of view, as in "you obviously feel strongly about that" or "you make a fair point".
The face that was weaned on a lemon
Many years ago, a Board Director found herself with another 7 people from the same company on a full day programme I was facilitating. The other 7 were all about 19 years old and about 20 rungs further down the company ladder. The Board Director was affronted, she couldn't understand why she was in such lowly company and put on such an aggressive display of negative body language that the other 7 were intimidated into a scared silence.
At the morning coffee break I took her aside and asked her whether she felt that she had a lot to gain from the day. She opened up about her embarrassment at being there. I suggested that she invent a phone call demanding her immediate presence elsewhere.
And the minute she left, all the 19 year olds cheered up - and so did I.
If ever you do come across someone who is sulking because they don't want to be there, then there are two dangers to be aware of.
First, is that your confidence is under attack. Second, is that it is easy to find yourself compulsively drawn to that person, giving them more and more of your attention in the hope of winning them around. Unfortunately, this may not work and will almost certainly leave the rest of the audience feeling neglected.
Here is a suggestion: make a big effort early on to win them over. Use their name, ask them questions, and compliment them on their answers. If it works, great, but if it doesn't then stop. It is bad behaviour and a childish ploy to get attention so don't keep running after them.
If they become disruptive or their behaviour affects others, then take them aside at the first opportunity and ask them if they have a problem.
Not paying attention
There are not many circumstances where you can reasonably demand that people pay attention: health and safety training perhaps? Teacher and school pupils? Mostly, however, there is an unspoken pact of cooperation between the audience and the presenter. The audience has an obligation to listen courteously and the presenter has a duty to be informative, stimulating, useful or entertaining as is appropriate.
So if you find yourself losing the attention of your audience, it is quite possible that you are not fulfilling your side of the bargain. Here are some reasons why your audience is losing interest - the remedies are obvious.
Tired, thirsty, hungry or restless?
Give them a break that gets them out of their seats and moving around. Have an unplanned coffee break, early lunch, a walk outside...
Ask about their concerns
Maybe they are unhappy with the content of your presentation? Perhaps you can ask for feedback - this will not be appropriate to every circumstance but it may be to some.
Audience are inattentive
Maybe your delivery is dry, maybe the content is too complex or a bit weak? Probably you have been talking too long - the interest of the presenter tends to be greater than that of the audience (golden rule of speaking # 2).
Get them involved. Ask them questions. Create debate. Set team challenges if the situation allows. And cut to the key issues / budget / next steps.But most of all... finish quickly.
Politicians and stand-up comedians aside, most presenters never have to face serious hecklers. The stand-up comedian has a repertoire of razor-sharp put-downs, the rest of us do not.
Best advice is to smile at their antics and if it gets too disruptive, ask them to shut up or leave.