July 2, 2008

When audience members attack

Do you ever feel like an audience member is attacking you when they ask challenging questions during your presentation?

Hopefully, your audience doesn't actually try to discredit you or prove you wrong, as a client recently mentioned to me, but sometimes a particular question can provoke a feeling of anger or defensiveness. You might get riled up. You might get ruffled. You might feel confused and uncomfortable.

Take it easy, big guy. Here are some ways to get past that rush of blood to the head and take the tough questions with ease.

1. Anticipate the challenges.

Part of preparing for a presentation is anticipating the possible challenges to your message. You might think that there are some topics that nobody could possibly challenge, but that's never the case.

What are the arguments against your points? Be prepared to back up your facts and your opinions.

2. Don't take it personally.

Just because the person is disagreeing with your ideas or your content, that doesn't mean he has anything against you as a person. Accept the question as being about ideas and nothing more.

3. Don't assume the question is adversarial.

The main point I want to make here is that, just because you perceive a question to be adversarial, doesn't mean it is adversarial.

Give your audience member the benefit of the doubt and assume that he is truly curious and is asking the question with good intentions.

Try reframing the way you look at audience questions, and be prepared for the tough ones, and you'll experience a lot less stress and discomfort at Q&A time.

Here are a couple of articles about dealing with true hecklers:

Heckle Schmeckle

Hecklers: The original backchannel

1 comments. Please add yours! :

Terry Gault said...


Thanks for brining up this point. Every presenter will eventually run into the problem of a tough audience so it is good to be prepared for this.

Here is my method for what I call "stump the chump:"

* Let the person trying to stump you be “the expert”.
“Wow, you really know a lot about this!”
* Engage them with humor and have fun with them.
“Maybe you should be up here delivering this presentation.”
“Let’s check with Bob. He is the expert, after all.”
* Keep a very warm, friendly “interface”. This allows you to maintain control over your state of being and will keep the rest of the audience on your side.
* Play the role of “helpful facilitator.”
“I am just trying to be as helpful as I can be.”
* When the expert / pain-in-the-donkey starts to take you down into the weeds, get the group to help you out.
“Gee, I’d love to talk more about this. At the same time, I want to make sure that others in the group get what they need from our time together. (To the group) Do we want to dive deeper into this topic right now?”
Then the group can be the bad guy, saying no, while you remain the “helpful facilitator.”
“Bob, I want to make sure that you get what you need. Maybe I can arrange some time to dive into this with you.”
* Let go of the need to be right. After all, do you want to be “right” or do you want to get what you want?

You usually can avoid this situation if you take a few simple rules into account whenever you are asked a question:

• Always take a One-second pause to:
o Honor the question with some thought.
o Give the questioner time to rephrase the question
o Give someone else time to answer the question for you. In that case, you have run no risk at all.
• Repeat / paraphrase / clarify
o Repeat in a large crowd to make sure everyone hears the question.
o Paraphrase when you suspect that you do but are not entirely sure you understand the question.
o Don’t hesitate to ask a clarifying question:
“Why is that a concern for you?”
“How does that impact you?”
“Why is it important to know that?”
“I am a little confused. Can you help me understand the question?”
• Dual eye contact
Look not only at the questioner but the whole audience to
o Keep them involved
o Monitor the behavior of others
• Be responsive
o Be direct – answer the question that was asked.
o Be simple – answer ONLY the question that was asked.
The audience will ask for more, if they want it.
• Parking lot
Take the question offline or tell them you’ll cover it later in the demo / presentation.
• Confirm the answer
o “Does that answer your question?”
o “Does that work for you?”
o “Is that helpful?”

Remaining calm and competent in a difficult situations like these not only boost self-confidence, but can also lead to increased audience appreciation.

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