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Yes, it's simple - as long as you abandon damaging thoughts like this:  I'll just keep talking and pray they don't ask awkward questions. That mindset, for a challenging topic and audience, is credibility suicide.

Prepare for their likely questions and concerns  
Let's assume for the moment that there's not going to be too much emotion in the questions and concerns.

  • Write down every question and concern that people in your audience are likely to have. And write them as if they're being spoken aloud right now:  'Will it be two days or three?' 'Will we still get overtime pay?' Now write down the essence of your answer to each.

Do you want to ace this?  Go a bit further with this powerful psychology.

  • Prepare to take it to them before they take it to you.  Audiences are impressed if you raise some of their questions and concerns before they do. Prepare to use language like this: 'You might be thinking that…' and 'Are you wondering why we're changing a system that works…'   Why are audiences impressed? You're demonstrating two things. First, that you understand where they're coming from. Second, that you're willing to talk openly about matters that bother them. You're not hiding from them. That's courage. Even those who remain opposed to your topic will feel respect for you. 

Prepare for their likely objections   
Now you're dealing with emotions that may overwhelm reasoning. They have negative feelings about your topic, your organisation, or you. You're going to get pushback.

  • As above, write down their objections. This is no time to be easy on yourself - include their worst likely objections.

Now is the negative feeling just about the facts?

  • If their emotions are based on lack of information or on misinformation: then you must first openly and directly acknowledge the emotion (using language like, 'You might be concerned that...'), then correct the information. Emotions, then facts - it's very persuasive.

Do you agree with any part of their objections?

  • If they're going to feel badly about part of your message and you agree, openly concede the point. Use language like, 'There is an inherent disadvantage to what I'm proposing...' 

But now for the toughest obstacle for any speaker:   
  • If they don't trust your organisation or you: (examples: You're hiding something...  or You're cheating us...  or You don't care about us, we're just numbers to you...'), now you must not openly acknowledge lack of trust (except in the most extreme situations); if you were to say, 'I know you don't trust us, but...', you would get howl of derision. Instead, include facts which deal indirectly to the lack of trust. For example, 'You'll be wanting total transparency at every step, and here's how we're going to guarantee that...'

Another hint.  Many audiences are completely silent. But their silent questions, concerns and objections will still undermine - even ruin - your effectiveness if you don't raise them yourself.  You'll win their respect if you make the invisible elephants visible.

Being real with an audience means dealing openly with their questions, concerns and objections. The most respected speakers are real with their audiences. That's connection. That's how to come away from speaking to a difficult audience feeling good about it.

Would you like more on how to handle a difficult audience? See my blog How to handle challenging presentations and meetings.

It happened 35 years ago and I'll never forget it.

I was a reporter at the time, making a TV item about disabled children coping with mainstream classrooms. Five-year-old Nicola had terminal muscular atrophy and was in a wheelchair. Now, are you expecting something bleak or grim?  No need, because Nicola was doing much, much better than just coping.

Her quiet presence dominated the room. She wore an unmistakeable cloak of charisma - the kind of charisma that draws people to you regardless of your looks or circumstances.  I was fascinated. Charisma in a five-year-old? How does that happen? I watched closely as she interacted with her classmates. Was there something special in her verbal or body language? But I couldn't spot anything specific that would account for it. It was a mystery.

Until I interviewed her.

We took her out into the playground. As she was wheeled across the grass, she chatted cheerfully with me. And she showed no nervousness or self-consciousness - which would be normal for a small child about to be interviewed by a grownup TV crew. We placed her so that the classroom was in the background, and turned on the camera.  After a couple of minutes - on impulse - I said this to her:

"Nicola, the other children all want to play with you. You're very popular."

She understood exactly what I was getting at.  She screwed up her face for about three seconds of thought. Her expression cleared. I remember that the pupils of her eyes were large and dark. And warm.

"I think it's because I like them." 

I like them. Not they like me. That, from a small child, was an interesting reply.

So, to the point for us as speakers.  When you're in front of an audience, never let your nervousness or self-consciousness mask your natural liking for the people in front of you. 

Engage warmly. Let your manner (eyes, tone, body language) make it obvious that you like the people in front of you, that you want to be there talking to them.

And do it right from your greeting. Too many presenters immediately lose engagement by delivering Good morning as a flat space filler. Think about that. Good morning has to sound as if you actually want that for the people in front of you.

Nicola is long gone. She died unexpectedly early, in an accident. All these years later, her insight is still with me.

Interested in training in presentation skills?

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