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Friday, August 3, 2012

Surviving a Difficult Presentation: Techniques for Handling a Hostile Audience

If you give enough presentations, there's a good chance that you will someday find yourself the target of an uncooperative or hostile audience member. As in most crises, you're better off if you have a plan to respond. This article contains specific verbal techniques to help you handle uncooperative or hostile audience members during presentations. These techniques are based on my fifteen years in the software training profession.
This article:
  • Describes some difficulties you might experience from a hostile audience member.
  • Presents verbal techniques to overcome those difficulties.
  • Gives you examples of how to apply the techniques.
  • Explains which techniques are appropriate when you are giving a sales presentation, and which are appropriate when you are giving an informative presentation or class.

Class versus Sales Presentations

When teaching a class, you are the authority figure in the room. You set the agenda for the session. And, you determine most of the rules for interaction during the class. This is a very different situation than when you are giving a sales presentation.
During a sales presentation, the customer's highest-ranking audience member is the authority figure in the room. While you may have an agenda and rules for interaction in mind, the client's authority figure has the ability to undermine or change them.
Each situation closes some avenues and opens others. As this document presents each technique, it will make you aware of the unique advantages that each situation gives you.

Difficult Situation 1: A Constant Stream of Questions

One of the most common difficulties that you encounter in public speaking is a barrage of questions from a single or a few audience members. Sometimes the people interrupting the presentation sincerely want answers to their questions. Other times the questioner has a hostile motive.
Usually, a hostile questioner does not want to attack you personally. Instead, the questioner wants to attack the material that you are presenting. This is an important distinction, because the most effective way to attack the material that you are presenting is to draw you off topic into areas that you are not prepared to speak about. Specific techniques for dealing with off-topic questions are covered later in this document. For now, we will cover techniques for dealing with someone who continuously interrupts with on-topic questions. If the questions are off-topic, you may want to use the techniques covered in this section with the ones for off-topic questions.

One-breath Answers

The least confrontational way of dealing with a constant stream of questions is to answer each question as briefly as possible. Limit your answers to one breath in length. And before stating your answer, ask yourself if this material will be covered later in your presentation. If it will be, state only that the material will be covered later. Do not expand on your answer, because additional details will give the constant questioner additional opportunity. After giving your answer, launch directly into the next topic.
Taking time to answer a constant stream of questions may not be your desired solution. However, if the questioner is an authority figure, you might feel obligated to answer the questions. Keeping your answers short minimizes the negative effect of the interruptions.

Set Limits

You can discourage constant interruptions by setting limits on when you will take questions. To avoid being confrontational or authoritarian, state why the limits benefit your audience and ask for their approval.
For example, if you're teaching a class you might say something like, "I'm going to speak about this topic for the next ten minutes. You'll probably think of questions while I'm speaking, but many of them will be answered while I talk. I'd like to address your remaining questions after covering this material. Shall we get started?" If you're giving a sales presentation, you might say something like, "On the previous topic, we had a lot of questions. While I'm talking about this next topic, I'll keep your concerns in mind and try to answer your questions pro-actively. When I've finished, let me know how I've done."
If the questioner interrupts after you've asked them to hold their questions, you may want to escalate by giving a very short answer and then tactfully reminding them to hold their questions. For example, you might say, "Yes, we can produce that kind of report. Stay with me for the next few minutes, and I'll answer the rest of your questions right after this material."

Acknowledge and Delay

You almost never want to ignore a question during a class or sales presentation. Doing so may be taken as a sign of hostility on your part. Even if a question is inappropriate or ill-timed, try to acknowledge it.
If short answers and setting limits has not eliminated interruptions, you can acknowledge a question and delay the answer. For example, in a class you might say, "That's a good question, and it's covered later in the course. Let's finish this topic and move on." During a sales presentation, you might try to get the room to agree to cover the question later. For example, you might say, "Later on, I'm going to go over some material that will answer that question, and several others that you probably have. Do you mind if I wait to answer that?"

Private Discussion

If short answers, setting limits, and acknowledging and delaying questions has not eliminated interruptions, you may want to escalate to a private discussion with the interrupting audience member. If you want to prevent the discussion from taking a confrontational tone, remember a few important points.
First, acknowledge the person's right to have their questions answered. Second, point out any examples of questions the person posed, that were answered later in the presentation. Remind the person that holding their questions until the appropriate time will speed the presentation. Promise to allow time for questions at the end.
Also, acknowledge any questions the person had that were off topic. Ask the person to compile a list of those off-topic questions for you, so that they can be answered outside of the presentation.
Finally, ask the person to agree to "help you" with the presentation by agreeing to these proposals. Remember, the person's problem is probably not with you personally, but with the material you are presenting or some other factor over which you have no control. Asking the person for "help" in speeding the presentation can get that person on your side.

Difficult Situation 2: Off-topic Questions and Discussions

A few off-topic questions from your audience should not be a problem for you. However, if an individual or group has many off-topic questions, this indicates a possible problem. If the off-topic questions are coming from several people, your presentation may be unsuitable for the group. For example, if your presentation is about the hardware required for a new invoice system, and the group has a lot of questions about the software’s capabilities, your presentation may be mismatched to the audience.
If the off-topic questions are coming from one person, then your presentation may be unsuitable for that person or the person may be hostile to your material. A hostile questioner may be trying to make your material look bad because the questioner would benefit from its failure. For example, the questioner may be in charge of an old system that would be replaced with a new system that you are speaking about. Or the questioner may feel threatened by being in your class and learning a new way of performing a job function. Either way, the motivation for a hostile questioner is usually fear, and the technique is usually to draw you off topic.

Ask for Relevance

One technique for dealing with an off-topic question is to ask for its relevance to the current topic. This must be done tactfully, to avoid offending or embarrassing the questioner. For example, saying "I don't see what that question has to do with what we're talking about" may be taken as a criticism. Instead, ask the questioner to "help you understand" the relevance of the question to the current topic. The sooner you can relate the question to the current topic, the sooner you can tell the questioner that the answer is another part of your presentation. You want to be able to say something like, "Okay, I see how that relates to what we're talking about. Stay with me, because your question is covered later in this presentation."

Volunteer a Course Correction

If it has become apparent that your audience has a lot of off-topic questions that you cannot relate to the material at hand, you may want to offer them a "course correction." That is, you may want to offer to change the focus of your presentation.
You must make your offer very specific to avoid promising something that you cannot deliver. For example, saying "It appears that you have a lot of questions about material that's not in this presentation. Would you like to change the focus of the presentation?" is inviting the group to suggest any topic for your new focus. The result might be a request to speak about a topic you are unprepared for.
Keep control of the situation by offering to change the focus to a specific topic that you know well, and that the audience has asked about. For example, you might say, "I had intended to cover the types of documents produced by our product, but I see that you're very interested in the analysis module. Our expert in that field isn't here today, but if you like, we can either schedule a presentation for that person or I can change the focus of this presentation. How do you feel about those options?"
If there is a single or a few authority figures in the group, you may want to call a break and ask those few people if they want to change focus. If you ask the group in general if they want to change focus, and there is an authority figure in the room who disagrees with the group's decision, you may create conflict between that person and the group. It's more tactful to have the conversation with the authority figure in private.

Difficult Situation 3: Confrontational Questions

When dealing with a confrontational question, separate the attitude of the questioner from the content of the question. For example, consider the question “Why do we need to waste our time learning this? The old system works fine and this one is full of bugs.”

Separate Content from Tone and Restate

Separating the tone of this question from its content defuses this question. The tone is challenging. If you respond to the tone,with a challenging or sarcastic response, you decrease your credibility.
However, the content is a legitimate question, and can be rephrased and restated by you in a less confrontational way. For example, you could restate the question like this: "We have a question about what advantages this new system has over the old one, and, what do we do when we encounter bugs in the new system?"
Here are two more examples of a confrontational question or statement defused and restated:
"Why is this class so long? I don't think it should take this long to learn."
"What is our training plan for this class, and, how do we know our estimate of how long it will take is accurate?"
"This system doesn't work. It doesn't give accurate results."
"We have a question about the accuracy of our results. How do we interpret them, and what are the limits of their accuracy?"
When faced with a confrontational question or statement, pause and look for the legitimate question contained within the confrontation. Restate this question to the class, and answer it as honestly and completely as you can. The result is an obstacle turned to your advantage.

Address Hostility Privately

If defusing hostile comments does not work, you may need to speak privately with the person. Keep the discussion on the training process, not on their problem. For example, don’t get drawn into defending the requirement that they attend class, or defending the topic that you are teaching. Keep your discussion focused on the fact that they and you are required to be there, and to accomplish a stated learning outcome. State how their hostility endangers that outcome, for them and for the rest of the class.
For example, this statement is defending the information being taught: "I understand that you don't like this new method of doing things, but it will save you time and effort in the long run. I think it's in your best interest to learn it and give it a try." The hostile trainee probably already knows the advantages of the new method or system being taught, because the introduction to your class probably stated those advantages. This knowledge has not prevented the trainee from acting out.
Instead of trying to sell the material to the hostile trainee, focus on the fact that the material is required, and that it is to their advantage to learn it. Also, remember that much hostility is the result of fear. You can soften your message with an offer to help, which may ease the student's fear and decrease the student's hostility: "This information is important to you and the others being able to do their jobs. This method is going to be implemented, and even though you may not like it, you will need to learn and use it. I'm going to do my best to ensure that you leave here able to do that. Let's work together on that."

Expelling a Student or Audience Member

Expelling a student or audience member is the most drastic measure you can take to restore order to a class or presentation. If possible, discuss this with the sponsor of the course or the student's manager before doing it. There's a difference between saying, "I think it would be best if you left for the remainder of the class," and "Your manager and I think it would be best if you left for the remainder of the class." This diverts the responsibility for expelling the student from yourself to the student's manager or other authority figure. Remember, as the trainer you are not paid to be the disciplinarian, you are there to educate.