Tough Crowd? 5 Ways to Stay Calm, Cool, and Collected

I love it when a new season of Downton Abbey makes its way across the Atlantic every January. But during the torturous months of waiting to see what happens next, I distract myself with a different British program: British Prime Minister’s Question Time. During the weekly session, the British Prime Minister stands in front of the entire House of Commons and answers questions from any Member of Parliament who wants to raise an issue.

What makes this great television is watching the Prime Minister wrangle a hostile audience. Many of the questions oppose the Prime Minister’s positions and aim to undermine his credibility. He has to find ways to outmaneuver opponents and take advantage of this public forum to strengthen the case for his policies.

What goes on during Question Time is an extreme example of a common problem. Every day, presenters deal with hostile audiences in an infinite number of places: a manager announcing a new Human Resources policy, a CEO addressing customer complaints, or a politician explaining how she voted. All these scenarios pose the same challenge: How do you win the hearts and minds of a hostile crowd?

A few tips can make a big difference:

  • Set clear, realistic goals. Presentations can change the world, but they can’t do magic. When talking to a crowd with a different set of values or beliefs, no presenter is likely to convert them to their worldview in one meeting. But they can begin the process of changing their minds on specific issues or, at least, creating a common understanding about what drives your differences. Setting clear goals for your presentation will help you decide if they’re achievable and figure out what you need to do to get there.
  • Anticipate resistance. The best presenters realize that their success depends on the audience they’re addressing and adjust their content accordingly. This strategy is even more important when you’re dealing with a hostile group of people, so you need to understand what motivates their resistance and anticipate their objections. Spend some time thinking about what your audience cares about and why they feel the way they do. You can use this insight to craft an appeal for your idea that speaks to their concerns. Consider asking some friends or co-workers to play the role of the audience during a test run of the presentation so you can practice handling the hot button issues before you’re in the hot seat.
  • Find some common ground. I’ve never met anyone with whom I had absolutely nothing in common. Sure, sometimes the overlap is small and a little vague – there’s a reason most pageant contestants settle on “world peace” as an answer that appeals to everyone – but it’s usually enough to start a conversation. By speaking to shared experiences or appealing to a common value set, you can create a linkage with your audience that makes you more relatable and may even make your ideas seem more familiar. That’s an important first step to overcoming any difference.
  • Be honest. Don’t pretend to be something you’re not. One of the quickest ways to lose an audience is to be fake. Audiences seek authenticity; they want to hear what you really think and understand why you think that way. Many times, what they really crave is to hear you address their concerns directly. In these situations, it’s often best to speak openly about your differences and tackle their complaints head-on. Even if you can’t change their minds in the short-term, your honesty is likely to establish a better rapport that could help you convince them in the long-term.
  • Stay calm. Have you ever seen a stand-up comedian confronted by a heckler? Most comedians struggle to deal with hostile audiences, and their reactions often become legendary. Don’t let a hostile audience turn you into a hostile speaker. Even if you’re asked provoking questions, stay cool and answer the questions to the best of your ability. If you manage to keep calm even under tough circumstances, the audience will walk away respecting you more than those who couldn’t do the same.

No matter how well you present your ideas, it’s tough to convert people who are strongly committed to their own beliefs and values. That’s why it’s so important to set a realistic goal so you can take the first step toward achieving it. The British Prime Minister likely won’t convert any MPs to the other side of the aisle, but he may pick up a few votes for his initiative or boost his public approval – and sometimes that’s exactly the kind of success you need.

Graphic Credit: Andrew Galu, Duarte, Inc. 2014

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