Sweaty palms… damp armpits… heart fluttering… You’re about to tell your audience something they don’t want to hear. So what’s the best way to do it? Here’s a checklist.
1. Get some perspective. Politicians spend their days arguing with people with opposing views. In front of the cameras or in the debating chamber, they have to be seen as rottweillers – yet in the bar afterwards, they often respect and like each other. Yes, your audience may heckle you. You may get booed. But it’s your messagethey might dislike: it’s not you personally. Keep this in mind, and you have an enormous psychological advantage. You’re a good person delivering an unpopular message.
2. Prepare. You’ll almost always know in advance whether your audience is likely to be hostile. So,before you present, make sure you’ve analysed your audience . You can do a lot to minimise and even prevent adverse audience reaction by anticipating how your listeners are likely to react to what you say. Put yourself in their shoes.
Let’s imagine you have to tel
l a group at work that their departmental budget is to be cut by ten per cent. If you’re the manager and the decision was your
s, you’d better have all the reasons for your decision at your fingertips. If you’re speaking on behalf of the board, it’s even more important to understand – and believe – the reasons for the decision. So take time to marshall all the facts. Write them down. Discuss them with a colleague – or with yourself, out loud. Do you believe what you’re going to say? Can you justify the decision?
As you prepare, focus on every issue that could trigger negative emotions. Anticipate every negative that may come up, acknowledge it, and place it in a context of your choosing as you build your presentation. That way, you’re framing each issue yourself and proactively responding to it in a way that helps to achieve your objec
3. Tell the story as positively as you honestly can. There are sound reasons why the budget is being cut, so make them clear. And, crucially, use comparisons to show how things could be a lot worse. For example…
“Three years ago, this compa
ny was growing at 30 per cent a year. Then came the banking crash. Suddenly, customers could no longer afford to buy our products. Everyone in this room has seen what’s happened to Marketing: they’ve lost some good people. I’m determined to lose no-one from this department. But, in order to pay our salaries, we need to cut back other areas. That’s why, from today, we’re no longer authorising business class travel. We’ll review this in six months.”
You’ve successsfully contextualised the situation. After all, what’s worse: losing your job, or losing a seat with more legroom? And you’ve hinted that the cut will only be temporary.
4. Some issues can’t be waved away. If you know they’re going to come up, attack them head on. That way, you can present them in a manner that will help defus
e the situation. What’s more, by addressing sensitive issues as part of your overall remarks, you’ll at least show you’re alert to the concerns of your listeners.
At the same time, don’t go overboard when anticipating a negative response. Go with your audience knowledge and your instincts in judging what issues to raise and address in your presentation, and what to leave out. You certainly don’t want to raise an issue that wasn’t on anyone’s mind in the first place.
5. Be aware of your body language. A frequently cited study, conducted by UCLA’s Professor Albert Mehrabian, found that we get most of our information through nonverbal communication. The language your body speaks is more reliable and telling than anything your words say. Therefore, whenever you find yourself speaking to an audience, you should know that the nonverbal signals you’re sending give them a much clearer idea of what the
true meaning of your message is. That’s why, if you have doubts about the credibility of your information or you’re not sure if the position you represent will hold up to expert scrutiny, your words and body language will show this. A critically thinking audience will immediately sense this.
We’ve written more about
body language here. By focusing on your conviction and the value of your message, and maintaining a mental connection with the audience as you look them in the eyes, you’re showing them that you stand by what you say and that you mean it.
6. When the worst comes to the worst… What happens when you’ve prepared thoroughly, but some of your listeners are still not satisfied? How do you deal with those who openly disagree with you or challenge you? Here are some tips:
- Stay calm at all costs. If you return the fire, you’ll only encourage more negative behavior.
- Don’t judge your entire audience by the reactions of a few. They may not represent the views of everyone. People who interrupt, loudly disagree, or become combative are likely to offend others in the audience as well.
- Be sure to address the issue, not the person. Don’t put the individual on the defensive and certainly don’t criticise anyone personally.
- Look for areas of agreement you can build on. That doesn’t mean you should back down when all your research tells you you’re right. Looking for common ground is not a form of compromise. You can acknowledge the other person’s point of view without agreeing with it.
- Stay within the immediate discussion. Avoid offering more facts or opinions that could trigger more disagreement.
- Avoid getting bogged down in an adversarial exchange. Once you’ve covered a topic as thoroughly as you choose to, end the discussion by saying simply that you’ve explained your position, but now it’s time to move on. You can always offer to discuss the issue further after your presentation.
- Do interrupt when someone with a dissenting view wanders onto another subject or appears about to give a presentation of their own. Make it clear that time is short and that you want to stay focused on the day’s agenda.
It’s a rare audience that won’t give you a fair hearing. But it’s better to be safe than sorry to be trampled by an infuriated mob.