The prospect of speaking to an audience that is skeptical, hostile, or misinformed is not pleasant. We worry about what might happen, how the audience will react to our message, and what consequences may follow. It is human nature to fear the worst – even when the worst is not likely to happen.
Of course, we cannot always control the circumstances that lead to facing a less than supportive audience. But we can prepare in ways that reduce the likelihood of the situation spinning out of control, while increasing the probability that we stabilize or even make the situation better.
The key is to concentrate on the factors we can control. Our preparation needs to focus on the factors that make success more likely than failure. Here are four keys to preparing and delivering a successful presentation to audiences who may be skeptical or even hostile.
First, we need to be clear about our purpose for speaking and what we want to accomplish. Meeting with a hostile group absent a purpose and plan can lead to the situation quickly disintegrating and fostering confusion and frustration. Do we want to inform? If so, we need specific information, credible facts, and clear messages to share. Do we want to convince? If so, we need to understand the concerns and perceptions of the audience. We need to know what audience members value and how we might meet their needs and appeal to what is important to them. Do we want to respond to a concern or apologize for some action? If so, we need to be clear about what we take responsibility for and why we see a response or apology as important. We also need to be ready to explain what we intend to do to make it right.
Second, we need to remain focused on the situation or topic. Extraneous stories, disconnected examples, and unaligned comparisons are likely to create confusion, frustration, and even more hostility. The length of our comments is far less important than our sincerity, commitment, and specificity. Our preparation needs to sort what is crucial to our message and avoid what may be distracting or sound like excuse making.
Third, we need to be confident. Confidence can be difficult to generate in stressful situations. Nevertheless, a plan that focuses on why our comments are important, what we want to accomplish, and how we will organize our thoughts and words can lessen our anxiety and build our self-assurance. Our ability to project confidence can go a long way in reducing the anxiety of the audience and inject believability in what we have to say.
Fourth, we need to remain open to and respectful of other perspectives and opinions. Our ideas and understanding represent one view of the circumstance. Others may also have worthy ideas and insights. When people ask questions and even challenge our message, we need to remain calm, listen carefully, and reserve judgement as much as practical. The questions we hear can open new avenues of understanding and lead to solutions we may not have considered. On the other hand, when we fail to listen and respect the views of others, we risk undermining our message and making the situation worse.
Few of us look forward to controversy and confrontation. In fact, people who enjoy conflict often are least effective in managing and resolving the issues and emotions involved. On the other hand, avoiding situations where we need to share a message or address an issue can also make the situation worse and undermine our leadership. The best option: be clear about the purpose and desired outcome, plan and prepare well, and buttress our message with confidence, understanding, and respect.