How to Defuse a Hostile Audience

Deliver enough presentations and you’ll inevitably face an audience that is at best indifferent,
and at worst, hostile to your point of view. You’ll sometimes face the task of delivering bad
news or explaining an unpopular policy. When you’re prepared for such an eventuality, you’ll
be less likely to lose your cool and more successful in getting your message across.

The first step when facing such an audience is to choose the overall strategy to best manage
your position. Sometimes, an audience simply has false information that serves as the basis of
their hostility. In this case, choose a correcting strategy. Your goal is to set the record straight
without making people feel uniformed or inadequate. When extenuating circumstances require
an unpopular policy, let the audience know that some things are beyond your control. Be
careful when using this conditional strategy not to appear to be shirking responsibility. Often,
good reasons exist for a policy or position that is disliked. Help your audience understand how
it was developed and why it’s in place. This is a justification strategy. You can enlist audience
support by asking for alternatives and making a commitment to consider them. Finally, you or
your organization will sometimes be in the wrong and an apology is called for. When you offer
an apology, make certain your regret and sincerity are evident. Explain what you’ll do to keep
the same things from happening in the future.

Whichever strategy you choose, there are certain steps you can take that will help you maintain
control and keep the atmosphere civil.

  1. Separate the person from the issue.
    Make certain you are seen as a human being and not an extension of the
    contentious issue. Show the audience you have similar concerns.
  2. Ask them not to kill the messenger.
    Tell them why delivering the unpleasant news is your job, not your
    enjoyment. Let them know you realize you have an unpleasant task, but they
    deserve to be kept “in the loop.”
  3. Don’t argue with a heckler.
    A friend of mine was president of a private club. During the annual meetings,
    there was always a heckler or two. His strategy was to be polite. Eventually,
    the audience will take care of the heckler. It worked for him every time.
  4. Remain calm.
    People take their lead about how to react to a situation based on the person
    in the front of the room. If you are visibly angry, upset or defensive, they’ll
    take that as the appropriate mindset and behavior as well.
  5. Recognize concerns rather than trivializing them.
    Nothing will make an audience turn against you faster than the perception
    you are trivializing or making light of something important to them.
  6. Use objective evidence rather than personal opinion.
    Instead of saying “I feel” or “I believe” say “Research shows us” or “The facts
    are these.” Position yourself as the conduit for bad news rather than the
    source of it.
  7. Remove anonymity. When an audience member asks a hostile question,
    ask him to identify himself, the organization he represents and to repeat the
    question. Without the protection of anonymity, people will be much more
    civil and moderate in their approach.
  8. Ask if there is something you or your organization has done to
    upset a person. The audience will appreciate your willingness to listen. You’re giving the
    person an opportunity to make a case. If a person is being unreasonable or
    over-emotional others will quickly see it. If not, the rest of the audience will
    appreciate your openness.
  9. Be certain to show the benefits of attending the presentation.
    Some of the most hostile audiences are people who attend compulsory
    training or briefings. They feel like hostages. The best way to win them over
    is to show them what they have to gain by being there.
  10. Defuse the emotional wording.
    Complex issues are often distilled into simplistic terms. For example, when
    you’re asked “Have you stopped polluting the environment yet,” rephrase to
    “the question was about our environmental policy.”

Initially hostile audiences don’t have to equate to unsuccessful presentations. Choose the
appropriate strategy, manage the atmosphere and maintain your composure. When you do,
you can often salvage the situation.

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