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presenter addressing tough questions


This is not about normal, interested inquiries. It's about the questions or interjections that come at you loaded with negative feelings. Loaded with emotion.

What does emotional loading mean in practice?

It comes in two different forms, often both together.

Emotion conveyed by tone.  For example, imagine an audience member saying, "This is exactly what we did last time." Or  "You mean three times a day?" Tone could make those words neutral, or it could load them with frustration or annoyance.

Emotion conveyed by words. For example, "My team will be annoyed about this."  Or  "The clients are going to be wary."  Or "I'm sceptical about the changes."  The emotional words are annoyedwary, and sceptical

The challenge is to respond in a way that brings you respect, even from those who still disagree with your argument.

But first...

How not to handle a tough question or interjection

Don't get angry.  If you show anger, annoyance, or even irritation, you've lost the game. You're not coping. You're not in control. The audience decides that you don't care how they feel.  

Don't get defensive.  By all means defend your position, but don't be defensive as you do it. Not clear?  You're defensive if you show anxiety. Once again that says you're not coping.

Don't pretend that you didn't hear the emotion. This is a big one. It's like pretending that part of your audience isn't there. Many managers and executives fall into this trap by responding only to the face value of the words. 

An example:
Interjector:  (tone of frustration), "We've tried that procedure four times already."
Presenter: (fixed pleasant smile) "Actually it was three times. Now, about the scheduile..."

Bad response. The presenter might as well have issued a statement that says, I can't cope with the way you feel. Worse:  if significant numbers of people in the audience also have the same frustration, the speaker's loss of credibility is huge. In fact the biggest emotion in the room may now be: You don't care how we feel, you don't understand where we're coming from. You can't relate to us so we can't relate to you.

Many managers talk themselves into this disastrous thinking: it's better to keep the emotions out of it, stick to the facts, then we can get things done.  Wrong - we do not relate to each other by facts, logic, or rational thought. Emotions are at the centre of what it is to be human. Audiences know that instinctively, and swiftly lose respect for anyone who thinks otherwise.

Pretending not to hear the emotion = instant loss of credibility

Enough on what not to do.  Now, how do we respond to this challenging thing we call emotion?

The right response generates credibility and respect

The answer is in two parts:

1. For the milder questions and interjections

As you answer, show - with your tone and body language - that you heard the feeling behind the words. That could be raised eyebrows, a slight pause, a nod, more animation, a slightly raised tone.

That shows you heard the feeling behind the words. It's subtle, it's strong, it connects. Audiences crave it in their speakers. Experienced, engaged presenters don't turn this skill on and off for questions and interjections, they never stop doing it.  That's because they are permanently awake to and responding to subtle shifts in the vibes of the room. 

2. When the emotions are strong and obvious

Verbally acknowledge the emotion, then reply.

Build your emotional vocabulary. Be ready to acknowledge emotion in others, using words like, "difficult", "frustrating", "sceptical", "annoying", even "angry".  For example: "Yes, that must be frustrating..."   "Sure. It won't be easy..."   "If I thought that, I would be sceptical too..."  "You have your doubts about this model? [Looks around.] And a few others feel the same way? Okay, I suggest..."  

But isn't that being negative?  If I do that, wouldn't I be undermining my own argument?

Not in the slightest (unless you're looking or sounding anxious).  Acknowledging a negative emotion is not the same as agreeing with the negative argument. It's simply recognising that emotions are a natural part of your presentation, and of any gathering. And you are strong enough to fold them seamlessly and constructively into your presentation.

Accept the feelings, argue the facts. 

In fact you will not positively persuade with your argument until you accept the current negative feelings about it. Try this example:

Interjector: (angry tones)  "You can't be serious! How the hell are we going to keep up the payments?"
You: (warm, intense, animated)  "Yes! That's the biggest concern for most of us... [looking around] ...agreed?  Well I'm looking at two sources of..."  

I'm saying Yes? To someone who is negative and angry at me?

That's right. The Yes! works because you're welcoming the negative feelings out into the open. You are essentially thanking that person for making the elephant visible. Now you can deal with the real world, which, of course, runs on feelings. This is top rate EQ (emotional intelligence), in a presentation context.

A last thought to ponder:

For top presenters, fully engaged with their audiences, there's no such thing as a negative emotion.

It takes courage, but you have everything to gain in personal authority and credibility

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.