Does speaking to a challenging audience seem like being fed to the lions?
Even at the best of times, audience emotions can determine the success of your presentation. At the most difficult times, audience emotions can make or break your credibility.
Imagine this. You say to your meeting, "We're going to delay for another month." Immediately a few heads shake in dismay and disbelief. Bill Smith snaps, "Again? What's wrong with you people? Are you deaf? We warned you about the problem six months ago!" What you said was a fact. What you got back was mostly emotion.
So how do you handle that?
Here's the wrong way. Ignore the emotions and respond only to the factual content. You might, for example, reply, "Actually it was five months." Guess what? That's how to make it much worse, creating open anger or even rage. Why? Because our brains are hard-wired to interpret emotional content as the real content. We experience emotions, concerns and objections as what is really going on. (That's true even of science and technology meetings which are supposedly about facts and logic.) So ignoring audience emotions is not logical, it's a recipe for disaster—no matter how correct your facts.(Ask any woman who tells her partner what a bad day she just had - only to be given a swift factual solution.)
Here's the right way.
First, adjust your attitude. You simply won't succeed until you can genuinely feel that audience objections and concerns are a welcome part of your presentation - that includes negative emotions, whether expressed or not expressed. And even with polite audiences, many presenters have thought themselves lucky because no one asked a tough question, when in fact their presentations sank without a trace in silence.
Second, anticipate and pre-empt objections and concerns. In your preparation, plan to acknowledge them openly before they arise. That's not agreeing with them, it's just showing that they're a natural part of the picture. It's impressive, it adds hugely to your personal credibility, and it takes much of the steam out of angry people. That alone will silence many critics.
Third. When you do get a question or interjection, share your reply with the whole audience.
Follow these steps:
- Listen actively. Your body language shows that you welcome the contribution to the meeting (no matter how emotional) even when you disagree with the factual content. Accept the emotion, argue the facts. Judge the facts but not the emotion. That's executive presence.
- Stay on the interjector only for the first word or phrase of your reply. From that first word your energy level is raised, indicating your interest in the question. That interest also indicates acceptance, without judgement, of emotions, concerns and objections.
- Continue your reply to the entire audience—as if everyone raised that point and will be interested in the answer.
- Return to the questioner for a nod of thanks. Yes, thanks, even though they displayed anger or resentment.
Some find it difficult to believe that the method works, until they try it. Actually, I see it as little short of magic, keeping you well in control, as long as you genuinely welcome concerns, objections and emotions as real, useful contributions.
For more, see my book Speaking Easy.
Michael Brown, author of
Speaking Easy: how to speak to your audiences with confidence and authority
Media Easy: how to handle the news media with confidence and authority