Hostile audiences: 4 tips for answering tough questions

Haters gonna hate. Hecklers gonna heck. So what the heck can you do about it? Here’s some advice.

I recently worked with a group that was preparing to deliver rather bad news at well-attended open meetings across the country.

They were understandably nervous in the weeks leading up to their talks, but one part scared them more than any other: the question and answer period.

If you’ve ever done public speaking before a hostile audience, you already know that the Q & A portion is one of the toughest parts of your assignment.

Try not to fret; here are four tips to effectively manage a hostile audience.

1. Don’t rush to offer platitudes.

Imagine you’re furious about a policy and attend a public meeting to air your grievances. If you ask your question and the speaker begins his or her answer with, “I totally understand your concerns,” there’s a good chance you’ll think (or say), “No, you don’t. How could you possibly understand? These policies will affect me more than they affect you.”

It’s not that it’s a bad idea to express your understanding. It’s that you shouldn’t do it too quickly—which leads to point No. 2.

2. Ask diagnostic questions.

When angry audience members complete their questions, don’t answer them right away. Consider asking them a question instead, which makes clear that you really are interested in their concern.

Ask questions designed to elicit more information, such as: “You mentioned that you were concerned about the health risks of our product. Can you tell me a little bit more about your concerns?”

Simply asking the question makes the audience member feel heard and often softens their tone. Plus, it gives you the information you need to help form a more relevant response.

Even if you don’t win over that audience member, the audience will appreciate the respect you bestowed upon the angry attendee.

3. Set the tone for the audience.

Audience members often get uncomfortable with conflict. As the speaker, you have enormous influence over their reaction.

For instance, at a 2008 campaign stop, then candidate Barack Obama handled a heckler beautifully. When the audience grumbled about the heckler, Obama told them:

“I want everybody to be respectful, that’s why we’re having a town meeting. This is democracy at work. He asked a legitimate question, so I want to give him an answer.”

4. Re-direct to post-session.

If your efforts to satisfy the angry attendee aren’t working, offer to speak directly with him or her after the formal session ends. You might say:

“You know, it sounds to me that I’m going to need to learn more about your situation. Since I want to make sure other people have a chance to weigh in, I’m going to ask if you’d kindly stick around after this meeting so I can learn a little bit more from you.”

Brad Phillips is the author of the Mr. Media Training Blog, where a version of this story first appeared. His firm, Phillips Media Relations, specializes in media and presentation training.

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