Hostile audience, easy as pie!

When someone interrupts to comment or ask questions about your presentation, PowerPoint cannot do anything for you. We can do a lot of things with slides, but we cannot hide behind them! Especially when the audience is hostile, it is important to quickly take on the appropriate stance, so as not to lose control of the presentation.

We have already underscored how important it is to anticipate the resistance of your audience. This way you are better prepared to structure your message more effectively and strengthen your stance. But what to do when faced with an openly hostile audience?

There are three natural stress-related reactions that are best avoided:

  • Fear:  you let yourself be attacked without responding and thus fuel the feeling that you cannot do anything about it.
  • Flight: You escape with sluggish answers, not really taking the time to think about the question and you attempt to get through it as quickly as possible; even cutting-off the presentation.
  • Fight: You get hostile with the person daring to interrupt you and making him regret trying to bother you in the first place.

We have all witnessed these waste-of-time exchanges. We’re not opposing arguments, we’re only confronting emotions! Nobody listens to one another and the exchange only serves to fuel the feeling that will resurface each time you’re in the presence of opponents.

Here is a step-by-step attempt to learn how to construct a proportionate response:

1 – Evaluate the hostility: Speaking in public is often perceived as a dangerous exercise. This sometimes leads us to think that we see hostile situations when there are only people who need to ask a question. There is no point in going on the attack each time you are interrupted. On the contrary, be interested in the question and the person asking it; be curious and ask questions in turn. Your goal is not to answer the question, rather to answer why we ask you the question. You will then be able to evaluate more accurately if your interlocutor simply needs an answer or if he wants to express an opinion or he wants to destabilize you.

The danger:  Being attentive does help in reducing conflictual situations, but you cannot devote too much of your time. The goal at this stage is not to argue, but to be more knowledgeable. Either that is enough to diffuse the situation, or we go to step 2.

2 – Accept the situation: At this point, you know you are facing a hostile situation. It is directed at you, at your project or at… sometimes we don’t even know, but we’ll have to manage the situation if we want to get back on track with the presentation. You need to stay in control and if you allow stress to overcome, you will lose your composure when you need it the most.

They’re only lashing out at the fruit of your thoughts and it could sometimes be interesting to have your beliefs challenged. Even if we would prefer it not to happen in public. Take a deep breath and if you think that your state of distress is visible, don’t hesitate to say: “your remarks are a little destabilizing, and unexpected, but I will still try to provide you with some answers.”

The danger: Faced with the embarrassment of being questioned in public, we tend to justify ourselves, which is completely counterproductive. By attempting to justify yourself, you think you are at fault and you lower the level of attention the audience is paying to you. On the contrary, we should accept the situation and go on to step 3.

3 – Release the pressure: This is the moment when it is important to remember that anger is not a form of attack, but rather a defense mechanism. As long as your interlocutor feels aggrieved he will be unable to listen to you. We must lower the tension and try to return to a more serene exchange. By nuancing your remarks and relativizing the opinions expressed you will help create a climate that is conducive to appeasement. This is where you have to show empathy in order to receive the emotions you aroused. As soon as the situation calms down you can start arguing. If the situation is not diffused… go to step 4.

The danger: Empathy means understanding the emotions your interlocutor feels. It is a powerful approach to de-dramatize a situation and find the right words. But it doesn’t mean that you have to endure the situation. One can perfectly accept an emotion without accepting the opinion that goes with it.

 4 – Don’t let yourself be overwhelmed: If the previous steps didn’t work there is a good chance your detractor was not only trying to attack your ideas but you too. Forget your arguments it is useless. You will be exhausted by the person seeking, most of all, to destabilize you. The question remains whether the rest of the audience wants to hear more of your presentation. If so, you have wasted enough time already. Discourage the questions by offering to talk about them later, stay positive about the remarks made and speak directly to the rest of the audience. If, on the contrary, you feel that you’ve lost your audience’s attention, it is useless to continue, for both you and for them. Explain why it is impossible to continue and feel free to express your own feeling (disappointment, surprise, apprehension) before ending the presentation.

The danger: Putting an end to a speech could give the impression you’re fleeing the conflict. If the conditions are too difficult, ending a speech could become necessary. But the reasons for this interruption must be made clear even if you feel that you are not being heard.

In conclusion, we must not forget that we often play at scaring ourselves by anticipating conflict situations that never or rarely occur. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t prepare for it. The more you feel prepared that better your stance will be in preventing conflicts before they escalate.