3 Tips for Presenting to Challenging Audiences

fish swimming sky

If you want to get out alive, never swim against the current

A few weeks ago a colleague shared a harrowing story of a presentation gone wrong. It was one of those scenarios where you don’t anticipate much controversy about what you have to offer, and the group appears jovial. But beware – large groups can sometimes behave like jungle cats. One moment, the regal beast is basking in the sun and purring, and then suddenly the powerful claws will slash and wound. Perhaps this sounds overly dramatic, but I’ve yet to meet a presenter who – somewhere – does not carry a scar from such an encounter. When it’s just you in the “cage” with a couple hundred slumbering lions, it’s best to keep alert and look them in the eyes!

Now, I am not implying that presenters should fear their audiences. Presentations offer an unparalleled opportunity to inspire, communicate and connect. And I’m not suggesting that it’s us (presenters) against them (audiences). That said, we know that individuals have distinct personalities and moods. And like individuals, a group’s mood can shift rapidly; sometimes without warning. It can feel mighty lonely at the front of the room when the group turns ugly.

I’ve written elsewhere about how to “TAME” difficult or challenging participants. But what to do when the whole group seems against you?

The first order of business is listen to understand. What did you say that triggered discord? What might be behind the objections, concerns, indignation or outright scorn among audience members? Modeling a stance of eager curiosity and a humble willingness to listen is disarming. It is profoundly respectful.

Example: “It sounds like this is something we really need to pay attention to. Would you or others be willing to share more? I’m so glad that you spoke up – thank you for raising this.”

The second essential step is to step outside of the content – that is, what you and others are saying – and reflect on the process. Group process refers to the how versus the what. This is expecially important to do if Step 1 results in pure venting and is not especially productive for the group as a whole. The power of reflecting on process as opposed to content is that you make it not just your problem, but the group’s problem. Plus, it is almost certain that while there are dissenting voices in the room, there are also voices that want to help you get things back on track – if you give them the opportunity.

Example: “I want to take a step back and reflect on what’s happening in the room. I noticed that when I said […], there were some strong reactions. I’m wondering what would be most helpful from me at this point? What do others think?”

The third point is to keep an open mind. It may be that you’re pretty invested in the idea or perspective that you are sharing and the audience members’ opposing opinions have provoked defensiveness on your part. This never goes down well. Defensiveness on a presenter’s part can be like throwing gas on a fire. Stay open to the possibility that you might indeed be missing something important, and that the group is offering you a true gift by pointing it out. That doesn’t mean you are obliged to do exactly what others want you to do, or even to change your thinking. It’s simple reciprocity – if I want others to listen to me with an open mind, I need to be willing to do the same.

Example: (inside voice) “Hmmm…I was not expecting this reaction. I wonder if there are others who might have the same reaction. This is worth considering carefully.”

In short, always swim with the current.  Trust me, you will eventually make it to shore with only a few scrapes and bruises!

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