Handle Challenging Audiences With Grace and Authority

(733 words)

How can you maintain control of your business presentation, even with difficult listeners, distractions, and interruptions?  To develop and demonstrate poise, authority, and flexibility, you can apply strategies that actors use when they are speaking publicly.

Here are some challenging situations and effective solutions that will help you project a polished and professional image with challenging audiences.

  • The distracting side conversation (audience members talk among themselves):  If two people are involved in conversation and it is causing a distraction, move close to the two people whenever possible and pause without looking at them.  This will cause them to notice the silence and look up and stop talking.  Do not stare at them, ask them to share something with the group, or ask them to be quiet!
  • Argument or conflict between two or more audience members (you are interrupted):  When this happens, summarize both sides, and try to physically move between the people.  Say something like, “Both points are very interesting and perhaps we can discuss them later to review them.”   Don’t let the conflict take your presentation away from you; don’t let anyone “upstage” you.  Do focus on the issues, not on personalities.
  • Audience objections to your message (you hear skeptical/ critical comments or questions that may or may not be hostile):  No matter what an audience member says, stay calm!  Actors and experienced speaker treats audience skepticism as a desire on the listeners’ part to be heard/acknowledged or to hear more evidence.  Do not take this as a threat or challenge, and do not take it personally.  Do the following:
    • Paraphrase the question/objection. Say, “So you are saying…:  Say, “I can see how you might believe that.  Others have expressed that reservation.”
    • If it is a “why” question, rephrase it as a “how” question.
    • Give a concise, factual, and relevant response.
    • Continue the presentation: Invite the questioner to discuss the issue at a later moment.

    Move on gracefully and with conviction. Remember what Ethel Merman said:  “If the audience could do what I’m doing, they would be the ones up here on the stage, instead of me.”

  • Some audience members will simply not accept a speaker’s message.  They may just be stubborn people or have another agenda.  Don’t try to convince everyone of everything.  You cannot, because some people never see a different side of things.  If you have agreement/understanding from most of the audience, causally move on.  Spending too much energy on one person can damage your rapport with the rest of the audience.
  • If audience members ask questions that are not objections:
    • Where the answer can be brief, answer the question briefly
    • Where the answer would be complex, tell the questions that there will be some time after the presentation when you can respond in depth.

Finally, you should expect there to be a certain number of questions during a presentation and certainly during the Q & A Session.

If the answer to a question is brief, briefly answer.  If the answer would truly be complex, tell the questioner that there will be some time at the end of the presentation when you will be able to respond in depth.

Make sure that you are always “reading” your audience.  This involves listening to them and watching them carefully.  It is a skill that good stage actors and stand-up comedians cultivate.  The reason is obvious:  when we understand something about the listeners’ mood or emotional state, we are better able to respond appropriately in the moment in a way that will enhance communication and listener engagement.

You can use your voice, body language, and even your content in an improvisational way:  ways that you did not plan but which allow you to speak authentically and respond to the unexpected events which often pop up in the course of a presentation.  Your delivery and timing can serve the moment at hand.

Eye contact is particularly helpful in this regard.  The more you speak in front of groups, the easier it becomes to make eye contact.  The ability to pay attention to the audience in a relaxed way is a key factor in becoming flexible:  flexible enough to say things that were unplanned and even discard parts of your presentation that you previously thought would be appropriate or even great.

Listening to and making eye contact with audience members are the most powerful tools available to understand the listener’ mood and respond effectively.

Slow down enough to take real notice of your listeners!

Use these strategies to project grace and authority with challenging audiences, and enhance your credibility and professional image!

Copyright © 2013-2015 Maria Guida


Maria Guida  is an executive speaking coach/trainer, professional speaker, and Broadway actress.  With her experience on stage, TV and film (working with Paul Newman, James Earl Jones, and  Kevin Kline), she helps savvy executives in all industries enhance their credibility and generate business by speaking with poise, passion, and persuasive power.  Delighted clients include American Express, JPMorgan Chase, and Johnson & Johnson.  Maria travels extensively to deliver interactive and entertaining keynotes and workshops.  She can be reached at 718-884-2282 and maria@successfulspeakerinc.com; or visit www.successfulspeakerinc.com.


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