As a speaker there is nothing more stressful than presenting in front of a hostile audience. You may have a heckler or interrogator in the audience. You may speak in front of a skeptical crowd. You may get rude or irritated facial expressions. Here are 7 steps for managing hostility in your crowd.
1. Have an objective. Having a firm objective for your speech, presentation, or discussion can help you stay on message when the audience is unfriendly. A clearly defined objective is imperative in most formal and informal presentation situations, as it allows you to keep your focus on your points, while quickly recognizing when critics are trying to undermine your position. Particularly in an emotionally charged environment where some audience members may become quite vocal in promoting their opposing views, it is perhaps easy to doubt the truth and value of your own position. But if you are clear on what you want your audience to know, you will be more confident when the skeptics and “grenade rollers” are trying to distract you.
2. Stay calm. By keeping your own temper in check and responding to hecklers with reasoning and facts instead of emotional outbursts, you are increasing your chances that others in the audience will see you as the more level-headed communicator and may thus be more inclined to give your position fair consideration.
3. Be positive. Having a positive and optimistic attitude differentiates the leaders from the followers. You cannot expect to make a winning impression and convert others to your way of thinking with a negative attitude and demeanor. Showing an audience the possibilities of your vision with passion and enthusiasm will go a long way in convincing them that you’re on to something. All great communicators know that genuine optimism and enthusiasm are irresistible and often contagious.
4. Get prepared. Preparation is critical when you are facing an audience that is inclined to dismiss or oppose what you have to say. If you know which of your arguments the audience most likely will reject, you’ll be in a better position to prepare an effective talk that addresses these issues specifically and with sound evidence. Gather as much information as you can about the attitudes, interests, motivations, and problems of your specific audience, in order to get a clear idea about their disposition to your ideas. The more detailed information you have, the better you’ll be able to relate to their unique perspectives and prepare for their opposing views.
5. Stick to the facts. Consider the evidence you have collected to bolster your claims. When you’re under the stress of personal attacks, resist the gravitational pull to reach for proverbial straws when making your arguments. Clearly you are on thin ice with this strategy. Stick to the facts, and repeat them often if you have to. But don’t give in to the temptation of using questionable data that you couldn’t verify, and that does not originate from positively reliable sources. Stick to what you can prove beyond reproach when the heat is on as you present your message, otherwise you’ll leave yourself wide open for your critics to jump all over your brittle evidence and shaky argument.
6. Be aware of your body-language. A frequently cited study, conducted by Professor Albert Mehrabian, a researcher at UCLA, 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 yourself have doubts about the credibility of your information or you are not sure if the position you represent will hold up to expert scrutiny, your words and body language will signal incongruence, which a critically thinking audience will immediately sense and draw conclusions from.
Make frequent level-headed communicator, optimistic attitude, winning impression, and let your physical expressions and vocal tone naturally support your message. 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 are showing them that you stand by what you say and that you mean what you say.
7. Establish common ground. Think about all of what you have in common with your audience. The awareness of important commonalities can be a strong bridge that will support your statements to your listeners. We all share certain universal experiences that connect us as human beings in spite of our many cultural, educational, and socio-economic differences. Particularly in front of an audience that is strongly opposed to your ideas, it is critical that you capitalize on those common human experiences by bringing them up early in your talk. With this strategy, even the most hostile audience can’t help but relate to you on at least some level, and therefore feel less negativity toward you during your talk.
When you can handle a hostile audience, you’ve developed top skills as a public speaker. You are ready to shine in any professional speaking situation. Now all you need to do is get out there and share your message so that audiences can benefit from your ideas.