4 ways to prepare for a hostile audience

Josh Storie

Written by

Josh Storie

Imagine you get a calendar invite from one of your executives asking you to present at the next board meeting with an update. Your stomach immediately drops. And not because you think you’ve done something wrong. It drops because you know presenting to this leader is always a fight. They interrupt you constantly. They ask questions with the purpose of challenging you rather than seeking clarity. They have no problem tearing you down in front of others. And, to be honest, it feels like they go out of their way to embarrass you.

Sound familiar?

According to the American Psychological Association, hostile work environments are more common than we all would think:

  • 1 in 5 workers consider their workplace to be toxic;
  • 1 in 5 workers say they’ve experienced harm to their mental health at work;
  • And 1 in 4 workers report having witnessed negative slights, insults, or jokes that devalued the identity or negated the thoughts and feelings of others based on their identity and background.

While everyone may not be required to present to hostile audiences at work, for those that do, it takes a tremendous toll. So, how do you prepare for a presentation that may feel like a fight?

Here are 4 ways to prepare for a hostile audience.

#1. Study your audience

Athletes watch film of their opponents because it helps them map their approach. When you study a defense, you try to look for the openings. You look for vulnerabilities that create moments of opportunity. Preparing for a hostile audience is similar. You must spend time studying the person you’re presenting to so you can identify the areas you can use to succeed.

Here are 3 questions to get you started:

Question 1: What drives your audience?

Everyone is driven or motivated by something. Maybe it’s power. Maybe it’s status. Maybe it’s control. Understanding what drives your audience allows you to tailor your message to touch on their motivations. When you’re speaking to the things that drive them, it’s tough for them to argue against it.

Question 2: What is your audience looking for in a presentation?

Every leader will grade your presentation on something. Some may grade on the quality of data being presented. Some may grade on brevity and your ability to get to the point. And others may grade on how thorough your research was in making a recommendation.

You’re most likely to see a rise in hostility when you fail to present in the way they prefer. So, before you present, identify what your audience is looking for in this presentation and tailor your content accordingly. You can do this with our Audience Needs Map™.


Audience resources colored button


Question 3: What is most likely to create buy in?

One of the mistakes people make with their communication is that they show up in a room with a message they want to communicate, rather than factoring in what the leader wants to hear.

What’s weighing on the leader right now? What initiatives are they trying to pull off? What goals are they trying to reach? If your idea or recommendation helps your leader accomplish their goals, you’ll see less hostility and more buy-in.

Let’s say you’re an HR leader. You see a company-wide skills gap when it comes to the way different departments interact with each other. Miscommunication is rampant. Deals are falling through. And finger pointing is at an all-time high. Your recommendation is to hire a consultant to run a mandatory day-long workshop on Adaptive Listening™ to help reduce workplace friction.

It would require everyone to take a day away from their desks, but you’re convinced that providing a common language around each person’s S.A.I.D. Listening Style™, paired with the tools to adapt their listening to other styles will be invaluable for the success of the company.

The problem is that you know the leader you must convince is driven by revenue. And taking a full day off to become better listeners would mean one less day the company is actively making money. The only way to create buy-in is with hard data that proves this idea will increase revenue. That information should change the way you present your Big Idea™.

Instead of approaching it from the standpoint of bridging a skills gap, you now approach it from the standpoint of increased productivity and increased revenue. You build an argument based on the revenue consistently being lost because of miscommunication in the company.

When you spend time studying your audience, it allows you to tailor your content to better meet their needs, goals, and create more buy-in.

#2. Create a checklist

Once you know what drives your audience, what your audience is looking for, and what is most likely to create buy-in, you can now create a checklist that you can reference before every presentation with this hostile audience or leader.

The reality is that you still have an agenda. You have an idea that will save the company money. You have a recommendation to increase employee retention. You’ve identified a problem that needs to be addressed. You have something you need to say!

But as you build out your presentation, run it through a checklist to make sure you’re addressing the three questions listed above.

In my presentation, am I …

  • Touching on what drives my audience?
  • Presenting the way they prefer?
  • Creating buy-in by helping them accomplish their goals?

When you can check each of those boxes, you can exhale knowing that the bones of your presentation are designed to reduce hostility.




#3. Change the questions they’re going to ask

Not all questions are created equal. And the types of questions asked by a hostile leader in the middle of your presentation can take a toll on your confidence as a presenter. Why? Because some questions from a hostile audience can instantly make you sound defensive. Questions like:

  • Why haven’t you … ?
  • Is there a reason you did … ?
  • Can you explain why you … ?
  • What made you decide to … ?

If you’re on the receiving end of those questions, you are being asked to defend your position. And there’s no way to defend your position without sounding defensive.

So, what do you do?

When we create presentations for clients, we typically tailor our content to change the type of question they ask so that our clients are no longer asked to defend their positions, but instead to offer information.

Here’s an example.

I was helping a sales leader with their pitch to a hostile executive. And in our prep, I caught a slide that said this sales leader was planning to “align on our sales goals.”

Because we were rehearsing on how to handle this toxic boss, I put my “hostile leader” hat on and asked them, “It’s Q2, what do you mean you’re aligning on your sales goals? Does your team not know what their goals are?”

They responded, “Oh, I know what our goals are. We’re actually redefining our goals based on some new information we received.”

I said, “Great! Say that instead!”

You see, the first statement about “aligning” opens the door for questions like:

  • Why haven’t you already aligned on our sales goals?
  • What has our sales team been doing if they don’t know what their goals are?
  • Shouldn’t you have aligned on our sales goals 6 months ago?

The second statement on “redefining” produced completely different questions. Questions like:

  • Interesting, can you tell me about this new information you have?
  • What did you see in the data that makes you think we should redefine our goals?
  • What have we been getting wrong with our approach?

In the first scenario, you’re asked to defend your position. In the second scenario, you’re asked to produce information. This type of prep work and rehearsal helped to mitigate a typically hostile presentation for this sales leader, into a smooth and successful one.

So, as you prepare your presentation, think through all the potential questions that could be asked in response to your statements. And if the questions require you to defend your position rather than produce information, change the question they’re going to ask.

#4. Focus on what you can control

This last point may come as a shocker.

You can’t control how someone responds.

You can prepare. You can tailor your content to meet their goals. You can think through ways to change the questions they’re going to ask. But ultimately, you have no control over how someone responds to your communication.

In fact, one of the biggest mistakes we make when presenting to hostile audiences is spending too much energy trying to anticipate how they’re going to respond. And when we spend our mental energy anticipating someone else’s response rather than focusing on nailing our delivery, we’re not present in the moment (which ironically ends up harming our delivery).

So, focus on what you can control:

  • Your preparation.
  • Your message.
  • Your delivery.

If you walk away proud of your preparation, your message, and your delivery, you’ve done everything you can do to rise to the moment, no matter how tough a crowd you’re about to present to.

Download our free resource

Want easy access to these ideas the next time you’re presenting? Download our free one-pager, “4 ways to prepare for a hostile audience,” to enter any tough crowd, from a hostile audience to a hostile boss, and make every presentation a success.

If you’d like one-on-one help for your next big presentation, engage one of our speaker coaches! They’re skilled at helping all types of professionals — from new to their career to executives — how to take the stage, command a room, and nail their delivery flawlessly.


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