Presentation Tips: Overcoming Audience Resistance

The first type of resistance you’re likely to encounter during your presentation is Logical resistance.

Can you find logical arguments that could challenge your perspective? Dig up articles, blog posts, and reports that challenge your stance to familiarize yourself with alternate lines of reasoning. This kind of research prepares you for skeptical questions and comments you may have to field—it also helps you develop a deeper understanding of the topic and a more nuanced point of view.

Secondly, there’s Emotional resistance.

Do the people you’re addressing hold fast to a bias, dogma, or moral code—and does your idea violate that in any way? Hitting raw nerves will set off an audience, so proceed carefully. For example, if you’re at a medical conference launching a new HPV vaccination for kids, also emphasize the importance of abstinence in youth.

Finally, Practical resistance.

Is it physically or geographically difficult for the audience to do what you’re asking? Will it take more financial means than people have? Be sensitive if you’re asking employees to hang in there as you temporarily freeze salaries to weather a recession, for instance, or giving your team a deadline that will take nights and weekends to meet. Acknowledge the sacrifices people are making—and show that you’re shouldering some of the burden yourself. Communicate that your salary will be frozen, too. Or explain that you’ll be in 24/7 mode right along with your team until the big project is wrapped up—and that everyone will get comp time afterward.

Prepare for these types of resistance, and you’ll stand a much better chance of winning over an entrenched audience. You can raise and address concerns before they become mental roadblocks, for example, share at the beginning of your talk that you too were skeptical until you’d looked more closely at the data, or you could meet with particularly tough critics in advance to “pre-sell” your ideas.  By showing that you’ve considered opposing points of view, you demonstrate an open mind—and invite your audience to respond in kind.

If you’re struggling to come up with opposing viewpoints, share your big idea with others and ask them to pressure test it. You may be so deeply connected to your perspective that you’re having a hard time anticipating the most simple and obvious forms of resistance. Use your boss as a sounding board as you prepare to speak to the executive committee, for example. Or ask a key stakeholder for a reality check before you present to other managers in her group.